Brief # 114 Foreign Policy
The Complex US Relationship with Taiwan
By Will Solomon
May 26, 2021
For the last several weeks, the world’s focus has rightfully been on the horrific, American-backed Israeli assault on Gaza. Even as a ceasefire (hopefully) takes hold in that region, events continue to unfold elsewhere on the planet. One potential flashpoint remains the island of Taiwan.
The history of modern Taiwan is complex, and essentially begins with the Republic of China’s retreat to the island, in 1949, after effective defeat on the mainland by Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army. The legal status of Taiwan (and the People’s Republic of China) has since been complex, and shifting. At this point, most states have some level of diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but stop short of full recognition. China does not recognize Taiwan as independent, per its “One-China policy,” and Taiwan typically has a limited status in international institutions.
But functionally Taiwan is independent, maintaining its own government and military, and its primary defense partner is the United States. Taiwan’s independence has led to a robust economy and, since the 1990s, an essentially democratic political system. Though struggling recently, for much of the last year Taiwan had one of the world’s best responses to COVID-19.
However, tensions around Taiwan have significantly grown over the last decade, as it is squeezed by a rising China and the United States’ “pivot to Asia.” There is widespread concern of potential military conflict around Taiwan, and regardless of whether a full-on war breaks out, the island remains one of the most contentious diplomatic hot-spots in the world.
The American relationship with Taiwan has changed substantially over time. While from 1955 to 1980 the US maintained an explicit defensive pact with the island, this was abrogated by the 1979 American normalization of relations with China. Still, the US continues to be a major booster of Taiwan, and sells the island significant armaments.
Taiwan plays a highly important economic role in the world today. It is the world’s leading manufacturer of semiconductors, an essential component in most advanced electronics (and, notably, one affected by climate change and issues of water use). Taiwan also has significant manufacturing and agricultural industries.
Increasingly, China has made aggressive gestures around Taiwan, routinely violating its airspace, probing its defenses, and asserting claims in the South China Sea. China claims Taiwan as part of the country, and its recent assertion of something like direct rule in Hong Kong serves as a potential harbinger—albeit on a smaller scale—of ending the status quo with respect to Taiwan. And conflict has happened before; there have been three Taiwan Strait Crises, and with so much military in the region now (the US also continues to send warships through the Taiwan Strait) it may happen again.
Consequently, China is increasingly a major topic of interest in US domestic political discourse, and “China hawks” in the US are increasingly vocal about the need to defend the island. Trump was characteristically undiplomatic, taking a direct phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, a violation of typical US-China norms. If more tactful, Biden has essentially taken the same view, in keeping with his aggressive posture towards China. As noted, the US continues to deploy warships to the area, and has conducted training exercises with the Taiwanese military, both actions seen as offensive by China.
Ultimately, the complexity of this conflict suggests the US take a nuanced posture. Anti-war voices are absolutely correct that a war with China would be devastating—for all involved, especially the Taiwanese people. Moreover, rising tensions with China are having ugly domestic political ramifications, contributing to the rise of anti-Asian racism in the US.
But it’s also important to recognize that many feel the threat of war is overblown, and that much of the impetus for the “pivot to Asia,” and obsession around the defense of Taiwan, is to boost domestic military spending, and give lucrative contracts to weapons manufacturers. It is difficult to deny the truth of this, particularly as the American defense budget steadily balloons and dwarfs up to the next 10 largest countries’ budgets, combined.
Ultimately, the US should probably treat Taiwan as a sensitive issue in an American-Chinese relationship that is more complex than the one island. Other issues—particularly joint American-Chinese efforts to mitigate climate change, and to ensure a reliable vaccine supply for the entire world, as well as address future pandemics—should take the front seat. Taiwan’s independence is important, but the US need not purposelessly antagonize China—to little effect, aside from increasing regional tensions—and should instead stay focused on behaving strategically, and working to address vital and immediate issues in the world today.
https://quincyinst.org — “The Quincy Institute is an action-oriented think tank that will lay the foundation for a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. The current moment presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together like-minded progressives and conservatives and set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing.”
https://www.democracynow.org — “Democracy Now! produces a daily, global, independent news hour hosted by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González. Our reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues.”
https://tomdispatch.com — “TomDispatch [regularly publishes] three original articles weekly on subjects ranging from the American way of war and this country’s ‘forever wars’ to economic inequality to the climate crisis.”