U.S.-Taiwan Relations After the U.S. Election Talk at Georgetown's SFS

posted by Eleanor Shiori Otsuka Hughes on November 28, 2020 - 2:45pm

On Friday, November 13th, I had the wonderful privilege of moderating an hour-long webinar with Sean King, Senior Vice President at Park Strategies and an affiliated scholar at the University of Notre Dame’s Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, on—as the title suggests—U.S.-Taiwan relations after the 2020 U.S. election for the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service (SFS). 

To start, Sean first outlined some of Taiwan’s foundational history and how many aspects of it remains deeply intertwined in the evolution of U.S.-Taiwan bilateral relations in recent years. After Japanese colonial rule over Taiwan ended in 1945, the nationalist Republic of China (ROC) took over both the mainland and Taiwan. This proved to be ephemeral, as the ROC leadership retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and based their government in Taipei after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong, who became known as the founder of what we know as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) based in Beijing. From then on, the ROC has perceived itself as the rightful Chinese government over both the Taiwan island and that of the mainland. 

Fast forward to the 1970s, and we see that entities such as the UN became more eager to integrate the PRC into international fora, which then came at the expense of de-recognizing Taipei as the sole Chinese government. This resulted in Taipei’s eventual loss of its UN seat in 1972, though it’s worth noting that Taipei voluntarily left before the UN was given the chance to kick them out. In 1979, Washington changed its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, and as Sean mentioned, it’s critical to note this diplomatic switch is a mere switch in formal recognition from one Chinese government in Taipei to another Chinese government in Beijing (not from China to Taiwan, as is so often said). This then manifested into what’s now Washington’s “One-China” policy.

As Sean noted, something that is overlooked quite frequently is that in 1991, Taipei revised its constitution, which put into paper what land features beyond Taiwan proper the ROC has jurisdiction over, and this includes 2 Fujianese island groups and 3 land features in the South China Sea that are a part of both territorial and maritime disputes, of which Taipei and Beijing are among the claimants.  To bring a little bit more context into this issue, in the 2016 tribunal ruling on the South China Sea Arbitration between the Philippines and the PRC, the adjudicators determined that based on the 1982 United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),  Beijing’s use of historical rights & the waters that they claim within their “nine-dash line” has no legal grounding and is thus unlawful. In addition, they also determined that land features claimed by both the PRC and the ROC, namely the Taipei-administered Itu Aba (which is also the biggest land feature in the South China Sea), is not considered an island but rather a rock, because according to Article 121 (3) of UNCLOS, Itu Aba is incapable of supporting human and economic life on its own. As evidenced by the official statements made by both the Taiwanese and Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the day the ruling came out, their responses are remarkably similar in that they do not accept the tribunal’s decision. Moreover, Sean pointed out that Taipei (by upholding its own South China Sea claims) is essentially aiding Beijing in maintaining its maritime claims, and Taipei is thus inadvertently abetting what many would consider a malign state actor in the South China Sea.  

Sean then examined U.S.-Taiwan relations under Donald Trump’s presidency. Initially, he did not expect Trump to be good for U.S.-Taiwan relations, but I think it’s fair to say that Trump surprised many Taiwan watchers. We may never know the reasoning behind why U.S.-Taiwan relations have undergone, as Sean put it, a “mini golden-era” since 2017, but here’s just a few of some of the deliverables that the Trump administration has presented in improving its relations with Taiwan:

Now, many of us are wondering what we can expect from President-elect Biden in regards to Taiwan policy. Going forward, Sean illustrated that in addition to maintaining good relations with Taipei like the way Trump has done since 2017, based on Biden’s administrative priorities, Washington can collaborate with Taipei on certain transnational issues and causes such as LGBTQ rights, climate, and COVID-19 pandemic management.  

Sean then made a brief aside in regards to a noteworthy topic, which is whether or not Washington should provide Taipei with a security guarantee—or what is otherwise known as strategic clarity—in the event that China attacks Taiwan (Georgetown recently organized a webinar on this matter, by the way). While individuals like Richard Haass from the Council on Foreign Relations have publicly spoken out in favor of strategic clarity, according to Sean, unless Washington considers re-formalizing diplomatic relations with Taipei, these conversations are not worth having in the first place. 

To end his remarks, Sean begged to ask why Taiwan matters to the U.S. and vice versa. First, Taiwan serves as a buffer against China’s military ambitions to form a blue-water navy. Second, Taiwan can provide more business exchanges with the U.S., especially on the technological realm. Third, it champions basic universal principles, and its remarkable handling of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far is a true testament that it is a thriving democratic society. Lastly, rest assured for President-elect Biden, Tsai Ing-wen is a reliable and trustworthy partner who does not take Taipei’s blossoming relations with Washington for granted. And perhaps in the grand scheme of things, by working more closely with Taipei under the new Biden administration, the United States will also reassure its closest allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region that its priority is to advance alliance management. 

After thanking him for his insights, I asked him about Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea and its precarious geopolitical position in grappling with intensifying cross-strait relations while also maintaining its maritime claims. Personally, I call it a catch-22 situation—at the very least for Taipei—because, as Sean mentioned earlier, the ROC built the foundation for the mainland’s current maritime claims in the South China Sea. So, in other words, if Taipei were to drop all of its maritime claims in its entirety, that would certainly be an affront to Beijing because in their eyes, Taipei would be undermining the “One China” framework and thereby orienting itself more towards independence. But Sean doesn’t anticipate Taipei’s inclusion in any sort of dialogue regarding peaceful dispute resolutions in the South China Sea anytime soon. To add onto that, he also asserted that so long as Taipei maintains its South China Sea claimant status, it cannot fully be Taiwan

I then opened the virtual floor to our audience. Questions ranged from how the EU can elevate its involvement in bolstering Taiwan’s voice in the international arena, the role that the private sector can undertake in garnering more congressional support for Taiwan, and the future of the Kuomintang (KMT), which is one of Taiwan’s oldest political parties. I also asked another follow-up question in regards to how as of late, one of Taiwan’s oldest diplomatic allies, which would be the papacy, has aligned itself closer to Beijing. Therefore, I asked Sean if Taipei finds this unnerving, to which he said yes in the long-term. Right now, the Holy See won’t sever its diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing, but this difficult question will be something that Pope Francis or his immediate successor will have to confront while evaluating what the Holy See’s interests and priorities are. To its dismay, however, Taipei will likely experience derecognition from its only European diplomatic partner. 

To end this discussion, I’ve come to realize that conversations in how to operationalize this season of renewal for U.S.-Taiwan relations is only just beginning. As Sean illustrated, meetings between high-ranking U.S. governmental officials and their Taiwanese counterparts are becoming more routine, especially under the Trump administration, and this trend will likely continue under the Biden administration. That is something that I find promising. 

So, as always, I want to thank our audience from all over the world for attending what was undoubtedly a very engaging webinar. Now that we are approaching the first holiday season since COVID-19 introduced itself to the world, I hope that you all can, as one of my SFS professors said to end one of our class meetings, “stay thoughtful, stay curious, and stay safe.”