“BRI thus serves the Chinese leadership’s vision of a risen China sitting at the heart of a Sinocentric regional order, the essence of Xi’s ‘dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ This vision reflects Beijing’s desire to shape Eurasia according to its own worldview and its own unique characteristics. More than a mere list of revamped infrastructure projects, BRI is a grand strategy that advances China’s goal of establishing itself as the preponderant power in Eurasia and a global power second to none.”
Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which aims to enhance economic as well as people-to-people ties with eighteen countries in South and Southeast Asia, including Australia and New Zealand, is aligned with the Manila statement’s broader objectives of “increasing connectivity consistent with international law and standards, based on prudent financing.” As AIT Director Kin Moy noted at a conference on Southeast Asian studies, “Taiwan plays an indispensable role in Asia and has made a tremendous contribution to regional development, including increasing economic prosperity, promoting the rule of law, good governance, and democracy.” While Taiwan upgrades its economic engagement and people-to-people ties with partner countries, it can and will work alongside the United States, Australia, Japan and India to help promote standards of increasing connectivity that are consistent with international law and prudent financing.
Counterterrorism and Maritime Security Efforts
As a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS alongside seventy-three other partners, Taiwan is already contributing humanitarian assistance. In the past, Taiwan’s contribution consisted of, but is not limited to, 350 temporary housing units and $100,000 for refugees in Iraq displaced by ISIS. In January 2017, Taiwan also donated additional funds to help set up mobile hospitals in Iraq. President Tsai committed Taiwan to continue its humanitarian assistance in this effort, as well as to help clear mines once the fighting stops.
Taiwan also has a more direct stake in the fight against terrorism, closer to home. In September 2017, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte claimed that an international criminal network based in Taiwan was a major source of illegal narcotics coming into the archipelago. Specifically, Duterte called out the 14K and United Bamboo Gang, two international criminal enterprises based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively, for smuggling drugs into the Philippines and using the country for shipment to the U.S. market.
Duterte asserted, “The Philippines today is a client state of the Bamboo Triad [United Bamboo], they have taken over the operations,” adding that the cartels “have decided to go international. Philippines is a transshipment of shabu to America and it behooves upon America to work closely with the Republic of the Philippines especially on this serious matter.” The president made a further claim that United Bamboo had given the Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf a franchise in the Philippines.
According to the Philippines military, Abu Sayyaf has been involved in the drug trade to fund its terrorist operations—so a franchise could plausibly mean that the terrorist group profits from the criminal network’s illicit activities in the Philippines. Although Abu Sayyaf’s scope of operations has been limited to the Philippines, there are concerns that the group could be supporting terrorist activities by other Islamic State–linked groups in the region.
In the maritime domain, Taiwan can also work with the United States and its partners in many other ways that are sensitive to the politics of the region, such as to play a greater role in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). HA/DR involves military power, since soldiers and equipment that can be used to inflict harm can also be used to recover from a natural disaster. After a hurricane or tsunami deals a blow to infrastructure, military assets are often the only ones able to maneuver through disaster-stricken areas to save survivors. Taiwan has a well-trained and capable military. Many of its naval vessels, such as its Perry-class frigates, were purchased from the United States, so both the United States and Taiwan are keenly familiar with the capabilities of many of its military platforms. Taiwan also operates heavy-lift Black Hawk UH-60M utility helicopters, which are American in origin. Since the United States is aware of the vehicle’s capabilities and limitations—such as helicopter flight-altitude ceilings, helicopter endurance before fuel runs out and so on—it can better incorporate Taiwan’s assets and troops into U.S. plans to help in disaster relief throughout the Indo-Pacific.
However, Taiwan would face the challenge of force projection if it were to expand its freedom-of-navigation operations and HA/DR, since it would require access to military bases to resupply its naval vessels along Southeast Asia and South Asia. Taiwan lacks such military alliance relationships or political influence in many of these countries. The most promising partners are those less intimidated by China’s pressure, such as Vietnam, India, Singapore and many others. The less promising partners are those closer to China, such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Strong U.S. political support would help Taiwan gain access to naval bases in various partner countries. In this way, Washington could help Taiwan to help the United States, its regional partners, and the overall peace and stability of the region.
Curtailing the DPRK’s Nuclear and Missile Programs
North Korea is engaged in a provocative pattern of testing nuclear weapons with increasingly higher yields, and missiles with increasingly greater ranges, with a declared intent of targeting the United States and its partners. In accordance with United Nations sanctions, Taiwan has moved in concert with the United States and its partners to phase out all trade with North Korea. It is worth noting that Taiwan’s trade with North Korea was previously very limited, but has now been eliminated. Last year, Taiwan was North Korea’s fourth-largest trading partner in the world, judging by North Korea’s global exports. Based on 2016 data, North Korea’s top export destination was China, to which it exported $2.6 billion in goods, with India in second, at $87.4 million, and the Philippines third, at $51.8 million. Taiwan was fourth at $12.2 million. In the first half of 2017, Taiwan imported $1.2 million in goods from North Korea and exported $36,000 in goods. According to available data from Taiwan’s Bureau of Foreign Trade, as reported to the United Nations Trade Statistics Database, Taiwan’s total trade with North Korea was $559 million, cumulative over the time period from 1989 to mid-2017 (a fraction of Taiwan’s total global trade at $9.6 trillion during the same time period).
Taiwan’s Bureau of Foreign Trade indicates that North Korea’s top exports to Taiwan were mineral products, at 73 percent of items, vegetable products, at 7 percent, base metals, at 13 percent, and textiles, at 3 percent. In the opposite direction, Taiwan’s exports to North Korea were composed of 37 percent chemical products, 30 percent textiles, 12 percent machinery, and 3 percent plastic and rubber articles. Taiwan has also cooperated in interdicting contraband trade shipments to North Korea in the past. In 2003, Taiwan acted on a U.S. request to seize 158 barrels of a dual-use phosphorus pentasulfide contraband shipment at the port of Kaohsiung that was bound for North Korea.
Taiwan’s ability to interdict human as well as wildlife trafficking, money-laundering schemes through its banking system and cybercrimes perpetrated by groups with ties to North Korea will both directly and indirectly contribute to curbing the illicit finances that prop up the DPRK and help curb its nuclear and missile programs.
In the final analysis, while Taiwan is not a driver of the Indo-Pacific strategy, it is within the broader context of a changing strategic environment that a pivotal role for Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific emerges. Taiwan can be a closer U.S. partner in each of these aspects. It is now up to Taiwan to seize this opportunity and take the initiative.
Russell Hsiao is the executive director and editor-in-chief at the Global Taiwan Institute, a 501(c)(3) think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to Taiwan policy research. David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.