Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe’s harsh comments on Taiwan at the recent 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue surprised many who thought China would offer a reassuring posture to the region. “If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity,” said Wei. “We will strive for the prospects of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts, but we make no promise to renounce the use of force.”
Wei was the highest-ranking Chinese military official to come to the Shangri-La Dialogue in eight years. The last time was 2011, when Defense Minister Liang Guanglie attended. As the first Chinese defense minister to come to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Liang played things safe — he did not criticize the United States directly and emphasized positive developments between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. Liang did not mention Taiwan in his official speech. In contrast, Wei’s discussion of Taiwan was only slightly shorter than his take on the South China Sea, supposedly the region’s most pressing issue alongside North Korea and the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. This change, of course, may be reasonable amid deteriorating relations between China and the United States, and significantly upgraded Taiwan-U.S. ties since 2016, but it still deserves a deeper look.
The defense minister role may not be as powerful as it seems in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hierarchy. According to the 1982 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, it is the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China that directs the armed forces of China. The defense minister merely participates in policy decisions as one member of this Central Military Commission, while his ministerial office under the State Council holds no actual commanding powers over the military.
But all this relegates Wei to an outside figure in China’s politico-military command structure, and surely should not diminish the significance of his attendance at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue and remarks on Taiwan. Rather than his title, however, it is Wei’s closeness with Xi and status as ranking member in the Central Military Commission that should draw our attention. Being the first general promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping after he became chairman of the Central Military Commission, Wei also delivered the keynote address speech at the 2018 Xiangshan Forum, the premier China-initiated regional security forum. Thus his wording on cross-strait relations does warrant concern by observers in the region.
U.S.-Taiwan relations have improved significantly since President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration in 2016, and President Donald Trump’s in 2017. Both administrations have dedicated efforts to explore developing U.S.-Taiwan relations beyond the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA). In March 2018, Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages high-level diplomatic engagement between Taiwanese and American officials as well as visits between government officials of the United States and Taiwan at all levels. The U.S. House of Representatives voted 414-0 for a non-binding resolution reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Taiwan in May 2019, and also passed the ”Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019,” which supports Taiwan and urges it to increase its defense spending, noting Washington should conduct “regular sales and defense articles” to Taiwan and back Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. This is no small achievement, as previous U.S. administrations have been unwilling to lend Taiwan this level of support in face of a rising adversary.
Striking at these recent U.S. actions toward Taiwan, Wei bizarrely compared Taiwan-China relations to the American Civil War in his official speech, arguing that as “the U.S. is indivisible, so is China. China must be and will be reunified.” Aware that acting United States Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan had mentioned U.S. commitments to Taiwan a day earlier at the same venue, Wei stated strongly that the Taiwan Relations Act, being a domestic law, does not provide legitimate reasons for the United States to interfere in the Taiwan issue. This, and the apparent antagonistic tone in Wei’s speech, was backed up by another press conference held by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Spokesperson Geng Shuang stated that Wei’s stance reflects China’s long-standing position toward Taiwan, and is a rightful response to Shanahan’s “wrong” take on the Taiwan issue.
Geng and Wei’s hawkish takes stand in sharp contrast with Shanahan’s much more restrained tone. Shanahan didn’t specifically name China in the early parts of his speech, and in the Q&A session stated that he did not see the current trade dispute between China and the United States as a “trade war,” but rather just part of “trade negotiations.” This downplaying seemed odd to many, as even Chinese officials and news outlets have been increasingly adopting the term “trade war” in the past few months.
Observing the above-mentioned drama, many will argue that going down a path of improved U.S.-Taiwan relations is both unnecessary and dangerous, meaninglessly risking China’s wrath. Such critics would argue that the TRA is enough, and there is no need to expand U.S.-Taiwan ties further. But Chinese antagonism toward warming U.S.-Taiwan relations must be seen in a new context, which will show why Taiwan’s upgraded international participation is not only necessary, but also vital for the ongoing U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy.
First, Taiwan’s industrial might and its leading high-tech industry are vital components of the U.S.-led global supply chain. As Shanahan and the new Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report both mentioned, “economic security is national security.” With the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and reshuffling of the global industrial landscape, the United States needs Taiwan to assist its competition with Chinese technology giants such as Huawei. Taiwan, after all, is home to other alternatives such as TSMC and ASUS.
Second, since Taiwan inaugurated its New Southbound Policy in 2016, which aims to expand the country’s multifaceted engagement with Southeast Asia, South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, the United States has found its interests in the region and its Indo-Pacific Strategy converging with Taiwan. Quality development and good governance are both at risk from China’s regional approach, but the United States and Taiwan can work together to confront that challenge. That means utilizing the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) and other programs between Taiwan and the United States to join forces in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in issue areas such as education, public health, technology, manufacturing, Chinese language training, women’s rights, and environmental sustainability.
Third, Taiwan has a number of diplomatic allies in the South Pacific, which serve as a safeguard against official Chinese involvement in the region. With the United States and Australia cautious of China’s growing influence further into the Pacific, Taiwan’s presence is an asset that Washington can utilize. U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia W. Patrick Murphy was right to urge Pacific Island nations not to withdraw their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan last month.
Fourth, while increasingly militarily challenged by China, Taiwan is still the key piece to the United States’ defense of the “first island chain.” It is also the leading liberal democratic success story in Asia, especially having just passed the first same-sex marriage law in the region. Whether in terms of values or hard strategy, Taiwan is the United States’ most natural partner in the region, and it deserves a firm U.S. commitment. This means exploring official and semi-official cooperation between the United States and Taiwan when necessary, especially in the face of rising Chinese militarism in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. The TRA is great, but both sides need more comprehensive platforms to tackle present challenges. In the defense sphere, Taipei and Washington cannot defend Taiwan in the face of PLA’s improving capabilities if they only practice tabletop exercises.
In the past few decades, the U.S. approach toward Taiwan has been relatively reserved, due to concerns regarding its ties with China. But times have changed, and so have perceptions. As U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stated on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre a few days ago, “the United States hoped that China’s integration into the international system would lead to a more open, tolerant society… those hopes have been dashed. China’s one-party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests.” This recognizes that that while cooperation with China is necessary to tackle global challenges, certain elements within the Chinese state cannot be changed easily. The China that exists today not only acts with authoritarian measures toward its own citizens, but also seeks to eradicate the rules-based order in the international system. Studiously avoiding any affront to China will not resolve differences, but will merely prolong challenges.
As China’s economic and military might rises, the United States needs all the partners it has to tackle this new geopolitical reality. An upgraded U.S.-Taiwan relationship will only serve, not harm, that goal. Taiwan has much to contribute beyond mere cross-strait relations.
Dr. Alan Hao Yang is Executive Director of Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF), a policy-oriented think tank in Taiwan founded in 2018 with a focus on Southeast Asian and South Asian affairs.. He also serves as Deputy Director of the Institute of International Relations (IIR) and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at National Chengchi University, Taiwan.
Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang serves as research assistant at TAEF.