The US: an ambiguous relationship
In Taiwan, the US wants a stable, predictable partner in one of the most important regions for its security and economic interests. The US is Taiwan’s most important security and diplomatic partner, a fact confirmed by the adoption of the Taiwan Relations Act under the Carter administration in 1979, when Washington shifted formal diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. The act commits the US president ‘to inform the Congress promptly of threats to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan, and any danger to the United States interests arising from such threats’. It also ‘specifies that the President and the Congress shall determine the appropriate action in response to any such danger’. The wording of this act makes it clear that Taiwan’s actions have to be seen in accordance with US interests for there to be any involvement from Washington, and also that in the end it is the US president’s discretion that counts. For the past four decades, successive US presidents have proved largely supportive of Taiwan – particularly, in the case of the Clinton administration, during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis and the run-up to the first democratic presidential election in Taiwan in 1996. But as China’s economy has grown, to become the world’s second largest in 2010, a careful balance has been struck between political and security support for Taiwan, and growing trade and investment links with China.
Taiwan’s actions have to be seen in accordance with US interests for there to be any involvement from Washington, and in the end it is the US president’s discretion that counts
US policy towards Taiwan acts as a protective framework within which Taipei can operate. It is an important guarantor, although it would be unwise for Taiwan to take it for granted. The formal position of the US, uniquely, is that it accepts that there is One China but has never stated how it interprets that. (Many countries recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China but maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan.) This has created ambiguity for both the US and Taiwan. It means that the US has reason to remain involved in Taiwan affairs, but it can also be interpreted as engaging in what Beijing regards as its own domestic affairs. Despite this, the US – just like Taiwan – has a balance of interests, and does not want to be pulled in one direction or the other on this issue. It has therefore built strong links with both Taiwan and China.
Even before he took office, Trump, as president-elect, raised questions over, for instance, what the One China Policy is, and why the US maintains this ambiguity. Although he quickly retracted these expressions of doubt, this created huge nervousness in Beijing. Tensions were compounded by Trump’s telephone call with President Tsai at the end of 2016, which broke the US convention, established in 1979, of there being no direct contact between the leaders of the two states. Beijing subsequently lodged a formal complaint.
These developments – although they raised Taiwan’s profile internationally – were received with mixed feelings in Taipei. The increasingly hard line that the Trump administration has taken towards China has also created challenges for Taiwan. After all, China accounts for a large percentage of Taiwan’s trade, and a sudden deterioration in its economy as a consequence of the current US–China trade war would have potentially far-reaching trade and political knock-on effects. Taiwan’s security dependency on the US also leads it to reflect on its vulnerability should there be real conflict in the region. Its geographical location puts in the direct firing line of any physical conflict involving China; but, more importantly, Taiwan has a high awareness that it cannot figure solely as a pawn in this ‘great power’ game. For the US, as is made clear by the Taiwan Relations Act, its own national interests come first. And it can never be assumed that these interests will be forever aligned with those of Taiwan.