Two senior U.S. officials have visited Taiwan since August, one to discuss the pandemic and the other to attend a funeral.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary of State Keith Krach were the highest-ranking U.S. officials to travel to Taiwan on business since 1979, when Washington cut relations with Taipei and recognized Beijing as the rightful government of China.
The visits upset the Chinese Communist Party leadership. And along with recent weapons sales to Taiwan and other measures, highlight a broader push by the Trump administration to deepen ties with the self-governed, democratic island at a time when U.S. relations with China are plumbing historic lows.
In the latest move, the State Department on Wednesday approved plans to sell $1.8 billion of arms to Taiwan, including precision air-to-surface cruise missiles.
Whether or not Trump’s warmer relations with Taiwan have, in fact, made it more secure, or less, is an open question, analysts say.
“In a number of ways, sort of across the board, the United States is treating Taiwan as a more normal diplomatic partner,” says Michael Mazza, who follows China-Taiwan relations at the American Enterprise Institute.
Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and has vowed to bring it back into the fold, by force if necessary.
Successive U.S. administrations have acted with caution, maintaining warm enough relations with Taiwan, and helping it gain the means to defend itself, without encouraging formal independence or crossing Beijing’s “red lines.”
Trump’s different approach started to show itself just one month after winning the 2016 election, when he took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The Trump team, and Tsai, said the call didn’t signal a new policy, but China was rattled.
In the years since, beside sending senior officials to Taiwan, the Trump administration has increased the frequency of U.S. Navy ships sailing through the Taiwan Strait, and sold arms to Taiwan with greater regularity — and less concern about China’s objections — than past administrations.
The U.S. opened a new $255 million representative office in 2019 in Taipei, to Beijing’s displeasure.
Also last year, the administration approved the $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, the biggest arms package in dollar terms since 1992, according to Mazza.
People in Taiwan seem OK with it all. A poll by YouGov last week showed that more people in Taiwan favor Trump in next month’s U.S. election over Democratic rival Joe Biden, believing the incumbent will be better for U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Biden has pledged that, if elected, he would get tough on China by reinvigorating U.S. alliances and investing in U.S. competitiveness.
But a second Trump term may bring even frostier relations with China, and a closer embrace with Taiwan — which some analysts believe raises risks for the island.
Trump has waged a disruptive trade war with China over commerce and technology, and in recent months sanctioned companies and officials that the administration links to human rights abuses in China’s far west and to the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong. At the same time, the administration has deepened ties with Taiwan.
“A lot of this pro-Taiwan sympathy ends up being what I call ‘bad friend syndrome,'” says Lyle Goldstein, a research professor at the Naval War College. “That’s where you want to help your friend, but the more you help them they are actually putting them in a bad spot.”
Beijing chafes at anything that smacks of increased international recognition of Taiwan. Its approach to Taiwan began to harden when Tsai, a member of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president in early 2016, and has intensified recently even as Tsai has avoided advocating for independence. Tsai was reelected in a landslide in January.
The government of China’s leader Xi Jinping has been blocking Taiwan from participating in international bodies, including the World Health Organization, and poaching its diplomatic allies. Earlier this month a Taiwanese official was sent to a hospital after a dust-up with Chinese diplomats who allegedly crashed a party in Fiji.
In recent weeks, the Chinese military has ramped up live-fire drills, including some that simulate battle with Taiwan. China has flown more warplanes than ever across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, with an official in Beijing saying no such line exists. There are also reports that China has beefed up its missile force across from Taiwan with hypersonic DF-17 missiles.
Shelley Rigger, an expert on China and Taiwan politics at North Carolina’s Davidson College, believes Trump sees Taiwan solely through the lens of his China policy, which increases risks for the island.
“The administration has been full of people who are vehemently anti-China, and they are willing to pull Taiwan into that conflict as a pawn,” she says.
The U.S. could show real commitment to Taiwan by deepening economic ties and negotiating a bilateral trade agreement, she says. Last month, Taiwan’s President Tsai tried to pave the way for that by opening the Taiwanese market to U.S. beef and pork — a major step that was domestically risky and unpopular.
Washington has yet to reciprocate, with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer reportedly against moving forward with Taiwan so as not to upset the “Phase One” trade deal the U.S. struck with China earlier this year.
Rigger says that’s regrettable.
“I don’t think you are ever a good friend when you are throwing your pal in front of a bully because you are looking for a way to slow him down,” she says.
Taiwan has been taking what it can get, while signaling to Beijing that it isn’t trying to upset the status quo.
In her National Day speech on Oct. 10, President Tsai said she was open to dialogue with Beijing. And last month, Taiwan’s foreign minister told NPR that the island was not seeking formal diplomatic relations with the United States at the moment.
But China’s Xi, so far, isn’t letting up.
Last week, China launched fresh military drills along the mainland’s coast and state media reported on a string of allegations against supposed spies from Taiwan caught in the mainland.
Analysts see the measures as an attempt to push public opinion in Taiwan against Tsai and her party, and away from the United States. But these steps are likely to backfire, says Joanne Chang, an expert in U.S.-Taiwan-China relations at the Taiwanese government-linked research institute, Academia Sinica.
“The fundamental thing China, Chinese leaders should understand [is] more unfair treatment [and] harassment toward Taiwan will make more support from U.S. and international community,” she says.
Beijing’s “zero sum approach toward Taiwan” is the main cause of warmer U.S.-Taiwan relations, she adds.
With China’s military capabilities improving, and Xi on track for a possible third term as president, the next few years could get even more dangerous, according to Alexander Huang, a former Taiwan national security official who teaches at Tamkang University, outside Taipei.
“I think the issue is to buy time. Taiwan should not challenge Beijing when Xi Jinping is still around,” he says.
Taiwan should focus, instead, on strengthening its economy and defenses, he says — regardless of who wins the U.S. election or how much help Washington is willing to offer.