Then US President Jimmy Carter announced on December 15th, 1978 that Washington would recognize Peking on January 1st 1979. Since that day, the official American position is that Taiwan is part of China and not a sovereign state. At that time, the anti-communist Chinese Nationalist government that in 1949 had retreated to the island after losing the Civil War against Mao’s Communists still claimed to represent all of China.
The US embassy in China, located in Taipei since 1953, was closed and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) took its place to preserve the “cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.” The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), enacted on April 10th, 1979 by the US Congress, has since then defined the officially substantial but non-diplomatic relations between both sides.
After the Americans for decades kept a clear distance not to anger the Red Mandarins, it came as a surprise that President-elect Donald Trump took Taiwan President Tsai Ying-wen’s telephone call on December 2nd, 2016. She wanted to congratulate him on his unexpected victory. During their ten-minute conversation they took the rare chance to discuss politics, economy and security.
Trump thanked Tsai on Twitter and Facebook and his transition team confirmed the event. Thereafter, Taiwan’s Presidential Office released a statement about the content of this unprecedented exchange of ideas. This prompted an immediate angry response from China. On December 10th, 2016 Trump even said that the US didn’t necessarily have to stick to the “One-China policy”, but after a talk with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on February 10th, 2017 he agreed to honor it.
This hasn’t prevented Trump from signing the Taipei Act (Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act) into law on March 26th, 2020. It’s aimed at strengthening and expanding the scope of the Washington-Taipei relationship, as well as Taiwan’s ties to other countries and international organizations.
Especially, because during Tsai’s first term in office (2016-2020) seven countries switched sides and (re)established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic, leaving Taiwan with just 15 allies. As China has always considered Taiwan a renegade province that has no right to conduct its own foreign policy, any moves by Washington to bolster Taipei’s global standing provoke angry reactions from those that also accuse the Dalai Lama of being a “splittist”.
The Act calls for the US government to consider “increasing its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan” and “altering” relations with those countries that “take serious or significant actions to undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan.”
On May 20th, 2020, the day Tsai started her second term in office, Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell and White House Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger both sent congratulations via video message. For his part, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a written congratulatory statement. Amid the inaugural festivities, Tsai expressed her pleasure over receiving such unusual attention.
Trump himself made a special gesture for the occasion, worth 180 million US dollars: he agreed to sell Taiwan 18 MK-48 Mod6 heavy weight torpedoes, and related equipment, training, logistics support as well as government and contractor engineering.
He had previously approved several major arms sales, including a 2.2 billion US dollars package of F-16 fighter jets, M1A2T Abrams tanks and portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles on July 8th, 2019. The US considers that Taiwan’s traditional military advantages over a steadily modernizing China are eroding fast.
As more US officials are now pushing to normalize weapons sales to Taiwan, some experts predict that Washington will help Taipei further modernize its military, possibly with coastal missile defenses, spy drones and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. Even conducting joint naval exercises with the island doesn’t seem to be taboo anymore.
It’s in Washington’s own interest to guarantee a certain balance that might prevent cross-Strait conflict. This concept also illustrates a broader strategy towards an authoritarian regime that is seem as a long-term threat to US dominance in Asia. Although Trump doesn’t support formal independence for Taiwan, he defends its democratic system.
Trump apparently also tries to use Taiwan as a weapon in the battle with China over safe 5G wireless technology. On May 15th, 2020 Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), one of the world’s leading computer chip makers, made public plans to build a factory in Arizona. The very next day, the US Commerce Department announced legal changes that could bar Chinese tech giant Huawei from doing business with TSMC and other global manufacturers from that sector.
While Trump has articulated a stronger commitment to Taiwan than any of his predecessors since 1979, and despite legislation encouraging them to do so, still no senior US officials visit “the greatest democracy in East Asia”. Taiwanese representatives from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, the unofficial Taiwanese Embassy, have to meet their American counterparts in restaurants as they aren’t allowed into the State Department.
Some are also worried about how reliable Trump himself truly is, as he has become known for his U-turns and might trade away Taiwan in a heartbeat if he thought that step would get him a new, better trade deal with China. At the same time, Taiwanese are aware of the sad fact that Peking has many more options for punishing Taipei than to counteract any of Washington’s future moves.
Nevertheless, disregarding America’s supposedly selfish interests, Trump has definitely taken bold steps to enable Taiwan to better face the threat that China represents. For that, Taiwanese and all friends of Taiwan around the globe should thank him wholeheartedly.