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  • U.S.-Taiwan Relations in the Trump Administration:No Big Fixes Needed
  • Richard C. Bush (bio)

As the Obama administration officials hand off Asia policy to Donald Trump and his team, one success story is the relationship with Taiwan. Through concerted efforts and in spite of very occasional difficulties, Washington and Taipei have broadened and deepened their bilateral ties over the last eight years. The two governments are working, in the words of one U.S. official, “to build a comprehensive, durable, and mutually beneficial partnership.”1 Going forward, continuity, not reinvention, is the most sensible path. A rift is not impossible, but if it occurs, it will be because a deterioration in Taiwan-China relations drives a wedge between Washington and Taipei. That has happened before, but it need not happen again this time around. Based on current circumstances, a cross-strait downturn is more likely to disrupt U.S.-China relations than U.S.-Taiwan relations. This essay examines the ways in which the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is both normal and unique, the changes brought by the January 2016 election of Tsai Ing-wen, and U.S. policy going forward.

A Unique Relationship

In some ways, the U.S. relationship with Taiwan seems perfectly normal. Its economy is complementary to that of the United States, and with a population of only 23 million people, it is still the United States’ ninth-largest overall trading partner and seventh-largest destination for agricultural exports. In 2015, U.S. two-way trade in goods with Taiwan exceeded $66 billion, a 4.5% increase from 2013.2 In the last year, the United States became Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner after mainland China. Most significantly, Taiwan companies are the vital center of global supply chains that run from the United States through Taiwan to China [End Page 29] and to the world at large. Under a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement, the two governments are working to deepen economic ties and remove barriers.

At Taiwan’s request, the United States has sought to find ways to expand Taiwan’s contributions to the international community, despite China’s persistent efforts to exclude it. Facilitating global training is a good example. In June 2015 the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding creating the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, whereby the United States and Taiwan agreed to conduct training programs for various Asian experts to assist their own countries in building capacities to tackle issues where Taiwan has proven experience and advantages. Counterterrorism is another example. In 2015, as a member of the coalition to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Taiwan worked together with the United States to deliver 350 prefabricated homes for displaced families in northern Iraq.3

Finally, as with many other places around the world, over several decades immigrants from Taiwan to the United States have created a human American stake in Taiwan’s future. A significant number of people, probably over one million, in the United States have connections to Taiwan and contribute to American life in myriad ways. In 2015, Taiwan was the United States’ seventh-largest source of international students, higher than the more populous Japan, United Kingdom, or Germany.4

It is when we move from economic, functional, and people-to-people areas to the diplomatic and security arenas that U.S.-Taiwan relations become “not so normal.” The United States does not recognize or have diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) government in Taipei but instead recognizes the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing. Washington has an embassy in Beijing and conducts its ties with Taiwan through a nominally private organization, the American Institute in Taiwan, which is staffed by U.S. government employees.

This unique character applies to security as well, with the political and military threat from China perceived by Taiwan closely binding the island to the United States. The ROC fears that through force, coercion, or intimidation, Beijing will compel the island to be incorporated into the PRC. That fear only deepens as China’s military power and willingness to accept risk grow. Under the rubric of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act...


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