US boosts Taiwan’s status without recognizing sovereignty

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar’s recent visit signals shift toward more public recognition of Taiwan

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Alex Azar meeting with President Tsai 

Alex Azar meeting with President Tsai  (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The United States has recently taken several high-profile actions to strengthen relations with Taiwan and bolster its international standing.

According to the New York Times, these moves are a part of a bigger campaign by national security officials to put the U.S. on a long-term path of competition and confrontation with China that Democratic or Republican presidents will not be able to easily steer away from in the future. “Taiwan is the most important thing from a military and credibility point of view,” Elbridge A. Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, told the paper.

Considering Beijing’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, U.S. national security officials now see improving Taiwan’s status as a focal point. And with Trump focused on his re-election campaign, his campaign strategists have told him he needs to continue to look tough on Beijing, which has given pro-Taiwan U.S. officials an opening, the New York Times reported.

Traditionally, the U.S. relationship with Taiwan has always been one of purposeful ambiguity in order to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. But now that China has grown more powerful and belligerent toward its neighbors, some U.S. officials and policy experts say Washington’s old approach is no longer effective.

Those officials, along with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, are increasingly eager to show explicit American support for Taiwan. They want to send military signals to Beijing and deepen relations with Taiwan, stopping short of recognizing sovereignty, according to the paper.

In March, officials convinced Trump to sign the Taipei Act passed by Congress, which commits the U.S. to help improve Taiwan’s international standing and oppose Beijing’s pressure on the country. The White House has also publicly criticized China’s attempts to force U.S. companies to use language stating that Taiwan is a part of China.

However, last week signified a major shift toward more public recognition of Taipei after U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on Aug. 10, marking the highest-level visit by a member of the Cabinet since 1979. Then on Aug. 12, Tsai gave an online talk hosted by two Washington think tanks where she talked about the importance of strengthening military ties and establishing a free-trade agreement.

A cornerstone of U.S.-Taiwan ties is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which says Washington must provide weapons of a defensive nature to Taipei. Last summer, John Bolton, former national security adviser and long-time ally of Taiwan, helped push through two big sales: a US$8 billion sale of 66 F-16 fighter jets and a US$2.2 billion sale of 108 Abrams tanks, the New York Times said.

In May, the Trump administration notified Congress of an intent to sell $180 million worth of advanced torpedoes. On Aug. 6, Reuters reported that the U.S. is also negotiating the sale of at least four SeaGuardian surveillance drones to Taiwan in a deal that could be worth around US$600 million.

But some administration officials believe that arms sales and U.S. warship transits through the Taiwan Strait are not enough to deter Beijing, the New York Times cited. “We need to change things on Taiwan to improve the deterrent and make clearer where we stand, especially by ending any remaining ambiguity about how we’d react to the use of force and altering our military force structure and posture,” Colby said.

While it is unlikely that U.S. troops would be stationed in Taiwan, a port call could be possible, or even visits by officers in uniform and training programs in Taiwan, U.S. officials say.

In the meantime, Taiwan will continue to bolster the country’s defenses against China as well as continue to walk its own path.