This week, many Americans are focused on the results of the Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire. But thousands of miles away, another fierce campaign is being waged. On Saturday, millions of Taiwanese will head to the polls to vote in the fifth democratic election in the island’s history. Taiwanese voters will choose between the incumbent, President Ma Ying-jeou, and challenger Tsai Ing-wen, the country's first female presidential candidate. The two are running neck and neck, if polls are to be believed, while a third party candidate could impact the race.
But no matter who wins on Saturday, they will be responsible for a U.S.-Taiwan relationship that is in need of leadership – in both Taipei and Washington. Leaders on both sides of the Pacific must work on all areas of the relationship. As a major trading partner with close cultural links to the United States in a strategic location, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is of paramount importance.
U.S. leaders should make clear that the academic debate over “abandoning Taiwan” is in no way reflective of U.S. policy. According to this thesis, the United States should back away from Taiwan to remove friction between the U.S. and Beijing. The only problem is that few believe that such a step would actually result in China taking a firmer line on Iran’s nuclear program, stopping its predatory economic policies or taking other helpful steps.
Further, this idea fails to consider the role that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship plays in the region. When the U.S. responded firmly to the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, the region’s confidence in the United States soared and a wave of counterbalancing against China occurred – Japan, Singapore, the Philippines and other nations all bolstered their security ties with the United States. Put simply, U.S.-Taiwan relations are a barometer of the U.S. role in Asia.
Letting our support for Taiwan slip would negatively impact relations with treaty allies and the countries of Southeast Asia who are justifiably concerned about freedom of navigation and Chinese resource claims in the South China Sea. While the Obama administration touts America’s “return” to Asia, it does so without mentioning our relationship with Taiwan. The administration should make clear that a deep commitment to Taiwan is part of its “pivot to Asia.”
A sure way to do so is to revisit Taiwan’s defense needs. Last year saw the Obama administration commit to upgrading Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16s, sold back in 1992, instead of selling Taiwan the new jets it wants. Because new technology must be custom fit into an existing plane, the retrofit will take considerably longer than if Taiwan were allowed to buy new planes. This means that for at least a half decade, the total number of F-16s available to patrol the skies over the island will be reduced, during which time the Chinese air force will be modernizing. In assessing Taiwan’s defense needs, it’s important to note that the objective is promoting peace and security in the region. A strong Taiwan makes better cross-Strait relations possible.
Another key issue for the next Taiwanese administration will be to get U.S.-Taiwan economic relations back on track. A wave of economic integration has been sweeping across Asia, and Asian countries have been securing preferential trade agreements among themselves and with other trading partners: 180 agreements are currently in force, 20 are awaiting implementation, and 70 are under negotiation.
Of all of these agreements, the United States is a party to just three: Singapore, Australia, and South Korea. Asia has raced forward while the U.S. has stood still. Like the U.S. – but for different reasons – Taiwan has been left out of much of this integration. While under the leadership of both parties, Taiwan has pursued closer trade ties with China, seeing trade grow by nearly 300 percent in the past decade.
Meanwhile, although U.S.-Taiwan economic relations have seen some positive signs, the overall relationship has been stuck over the proper treatment of U.S. beef exports to Taiwan. While beef exports represent less than one percent of our bilateral trade relationship, Taiwan’s broken agreements with the U.S. have put the entire economic relationship between us on hold. The United States hasn’t held major trade talks with its 9th largest trading partner in years. As with all trade issues, strong leadership on both sides of the Pacific will be required to resolve this and to move forward in 2012.
Unfortunately, strong leadership in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship has been lacking. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have held high aspirations for this relationship. Relations with Taiwan are treated as a subset of relations with China, and “managed,” rather than promoted. Regardless of who wins Saturday, that approach must change if U.S-Taiwan relations are to get back on track.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) serves as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, and is a senior member of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. He is an active member of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus.