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SPF China Observer

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SPF China Observer


No.21 2019/09/24

Rising tension in the US-China relationship and Taiwan

Ichiro Inoue (Professor, Graduate School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University)


 In August this year, the Trump administration of the US made it public that it was selling F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan and reported it to the US Congress. Up until that point, the US had withheld the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, with the last sale having been concluded in 1992 under the George Bush Senior administration. In July, President Tsai Ing-wen made a stop-over in New York and Denver before and after her visit to four Caribbean countries that still maintain diplomatic relationships with Taiwan. It is now customary for the Taiwanese president to transit through the US when he/she visits friendly countries in Central America and the Caribbean. However, President Tsai used this occasion to engage in a series of high-profile activities never seen before. She attended a welcome ceremony that was also attended by United Nations ambassadors from countries that have diplomatic relationships with Taiwan and delivered a lecture at Columbia University[1]. These events could not have happened without the US government’s approval.

 In the midst of rising tensions between the US and China, while most attention tends to be paid to the trade and tariff problems, there have been major changes in the situation surrounding Taiwan as well. Since Kissinger’s secret visit to China in 1971 and the normalization of US-China relations in 1979, China has consistently argued that the Taiwan problem is an important and sensitive issue without any room for compromise, and the US has shown a degree of understanding regarding this issue, treating it with caution. However, US policies toward Taiwan since the advent of the Trump administration have diverged from this previously followed convention. Have US policies toward Taiwan changed in a fundamental manner? How is China going to respond to this? The current article explores changes in recent US policies regarding Taiwan and the background underlying China’s responses to them.

1. The Trump administration’s policies toward Taiwan

 Let us first review developments related to Taiwan, which have occurred since the advent of the Trump administration. When Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen after his Presidential victory in 2016, attention was drawn to the new administration’s policies toward Taiwan. In March 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act, which aimed to allow high-level US and Taiwanese governmental officials to visit each other, was passed, and in 2019, the US Congress debated the Taiwan Assurance Act which encourages Taiwan’s participation in some international organizations[2].

 With regard to security affairs, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s January 2019 published report, “China Military Power,” has pointed out Taiwan’s vulnerability vis-à-vis China, which was strengthening its military capabilities[3]. The “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019” prepared by the Department of Defense, which was released in May, has emphasized the importance of continuing support to Taiwan at a point where the military balance is significantly tipping toward China[4]. Furthermore, the “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” by the Department of Defense, which was published in June, has defined Taiwan as a member of a group of democratic powers resisting China. Following this, regarding Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Mongolia, it states, “All four countries contribute to U.S. missions around the world and are actively taking steps to uphold a free and open international order”; thus, Taiwan is described as a “country” in an official document[5].

 In May 2019, David Lee, the Secretary-General of the National Security Council of Taiwan, made a visit to Washington, DC, and held a talk with John Bolton, the then National Security Advisor. This was the first instance of such contact between the US and Taiwan at this level since diplomatic relationships were broken in 1979. In July, it was announced that weapons worth 2.2 billion US dollars would be supplied to Taiwan, and in August, as mentioned earlier, the sale of the F-16 fighter jets was announced. In addition, currently in 2019, US military vessels have been passing through the Taiwan Strait almost on a monthly basis.

2. The background underlying US policies toward Taiwan

 After the first US-North Korea summit in June 2018, US policies toward China with regard to trade started to become tougher Since then, US policies toward Taiwan have become more proactive with regard to security affairs. Now that direct talks have begun between the US and North Korea, the US no longer has to rely on Chinese help with regard to the North Korean problem, and as a result, the US no longer has to exercise as much restraint as before with regard to Taiwan.

 Then, can we say that US policies toward Taiwan have changed in a fundamental manner? Judging from President Trump’s actions and comments, it does not appear that he is deeply interested in—let alone has a deep understanding of—the Taiwan issue. On the other hand, the hawks toward China, who form the majority in the administration, have shown an intention to treat the Taiwan as a part of the pressure on China, even as the tension in the US-China relationship has continued to rise. China regards the Taiwan as highly important with regard to the US-China relationship, and the US used to exercise a certain degree of restraint regarding Taiwan, treating it as a sensitive issue; however, the current US administration is not treating it as such. As the US-China conflict has deepened with regard to trade and security, ironically, the priority afforded to the Taiwan has declined, and it is not receiving the attention that it deserves.

 The background underlying these changes includes changes in the State Department, which is in the position to co-ordinate and manage the US government’s policies, as a whole, toward China and Taiwan. As the institution responsible for US diplomacy, the State Department has tried to maintain coherent and balanced policies toward China and Taiwan by sometimes overriding the hardline Department of Defense and the National Security Council, but it no longer sufficiently fulfills such a function. Susan Thornton, former acting Assistant Secretary of State, a well-known traditional China hand, was in charge of policies toward China for a long time in the State Department; she retired after the advent of the Trump administration because of the delay in obtaining congressional confirmation due to the criticism that she was “pro-China.” Many China experts who remained after Thornton’s departure have also left, and on the practical level, there has been change in the continuity of policies toward China and Taiwan. As a result, the conventional approach of the State Department—that is, cautious management of the Taiwan issue by the US government as a whole—through coordination with other departments and agencies, is changing to one that involves a gradual upgrading of the US-Taiwan relationship.

 Conversely, regarding security policies, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, individually and based on their own perspectives, have been trying to be proactive in their dealings with Taiwan as part of their hardline policies toward China. The current administration had defined China as a revisionist power and stated its intention to resist it. Consequently, Taiwan is defined as an important strategic asset in the US countermeasures toward the increasingly active and expansive maritime activities of China, even as its military might continues to grow. It is clear that the US wants to co-opt Taiwan as part of its “Indo-Pacific strategies.”

 In addition, as Taiwan’s Kuomintang has become increasingly pro-China in recent years, the US government appears to be strengthening its support for the current Taiwanese government, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which wants to keep its distance from China in view of the looming January 2020 Taiwanese presidential elections[6]. In the background to this, we find the DPP’s lobbying activities in the US. While the activities of the Kuomintang are said to be weakening, the DPP maintains its own office in Washington, DC, the US capital, and is actively working on the US government, apart from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (the Taiwanese government’s office)[7].

 As seen above, while the current US administration appears to be upgrading the US-Taiwan relationship, we can still see the exercise of a degree of restraint in its relationship with China. During the June 2018 completion ceremony for the new office of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy in Taiwan, it was speculated that John Bolton, the then National Security Advisor, would attend it; it was, in fact, attended by Marie Royce, the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs[8]. During President Tsai Ing-wen’s stay in New York and Denver in July 2019, which attracted much attention, there was no confirmed contact with high-level US government officials.

3. Developments in Taiwan

 Even as some in Taiwan have welcomed the rising tension in the US-China relations, Tsai Ing-wen’s government is keen on further developing the US-Taiwan relationship and thus making the most of this opportunity. We can see her intention to attract the international community’s sympathy and strengthen domestic support by emphasizing freedom and democracy and thus highlight the difference between Taiwan and Xi Jinping’s China, which is becoming increasingly more authoritarian. On the other hand, a rapid improvement in the US-Taiwan relationship could invite severe retaliation from China toward Taiwan. Furthermore, a big rise in the US tariffs imposed on imported Chinese goods poses a serious problem to Taiwanese businesses, which manufacture goods in Mainland China for export to the US.

 Partly due to its sluggish economic performance, support for the Tsai government went down during its first term, and earlier, her victory at the next presidential election, which is to be held in January 2020, was in doubt. However, in January 2019, in his speech during the ceremony marking the fortieth anniversary of the publication of “Message to the Compatriots in Taiwan,” President Xi Jinping made reference to the “exercise of military force,” which was not mentioned in Hu Jintao’s speech delivered ten years ago[9]; his hardline attitude backfired, and support for President Tsai Ing-wen has been rising ever since. Furthermore, the expansion of popular protests in Hong Kong, which started with protests against the “extradition treaty” bill since June, has undermined Taiwanese people’s trust in the “one country two systems” regime proposed by China and has led to a rise in support for the DPP, which distances itself from China.

 The Tsai Ing-wen government is trying to make the most of the current situation in order to make a breakthrough in the US-Taiwan relationship. On the other hand, as we have seen thus far, the current US administration’s attitudes toward Taiwan are fundamentally focused on security policies, in which Taiwan is defined as a part of anti-China measures in the US-China relationship, which is experiencing rising tensions. If the US-China relationship thaws to some degree in the future, there is no denying the possibility of Taiwan being left behind. Thus, the concern that Taiwan may end up as a bargaining chip in US efforts to restrain China remains.

4. China’s response and its underlying background

 Thus far, the Chinese response to these developments in the US and Taiwan appears to be quite restrained. While the supply of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan will not change the military balance between China and Taiwan in any significant manner, with regard to the conventional position maintained by China, this has already crossed the red line. While Hua Chunying, the Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Information Department, has responded, “(This) violates Chinese sovereignty and Chinese interests in national security. We will react strongly if the sale is not called off. All responsibility is to be borne by the US,”[10] as of early September, when the current article was written, China’s rebuttal has remained verbal. Furthermore, if we make comparisons with Tsai Ing-wen’s stay in New York in July, President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the US in 1995 was met with China’s strong condemnation toward the US and Taiwan as well as the temporary recall of the Chinese ambassador to the US. However, unlike President Lee Teng-hui’s visit, which was a solo visit to the US, President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the US was carried out in the form of a transit stop-over; therefore, we cannot make a simple comparison. Nevertheless, it appears that China’s response to Taiwan—let alone to the US—has been very restrained.

 As far as its relationship with the US is concerned, it cannot ignore the fact that tension in the US-China relationship is rising due to the intensification of the US-China trade war, and there appears to be a judgement that a more hardline attitude toward the US at this point could backfire. Following the convention, the Chinese government announced sanctions on related US businesses when the weapons supply to Taiwan was announced in July prior to the supply of the F-16 fighter jets[11], but its criticism toward the US government has remained rather low-key. Furthermore, vis-à-vis its relationship with Taiwan, as mentioned above, any strong criticisms and severe retaliatory measures by China against Taiwan would work in favor of President Tsai Ing-wen, with the presidential elections due in January 2020, and this presents a major dilemma for China. Since President Xi’s speech in January, support for Tsai Ing-wen, which had been weakening, has picked up, and the recent developments in Hong Kong have proven to be positive for strengthening support for her.

 Nevertheless, China had to take some action, and on July 31st, it announced restrictions on individual travel from China to Taiwan[12]. This appears to be aimed at reducing support for the DPP in Taiwan by inflicting damage on Taiwan’s tourism industry by reducing the number of visitors from China. However, as China has implemented travel restrictions regarding Taiwan several times since the advent of the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen government, the number of mainland Chinese visitors to Taiwan has already experienced a significant reduction. Consequently, from the Taiwanese perspective, the damage is somewhat manageable[13]. In addition, people in Taiwan are now fed up with the Chinese government’s way of doing things, and the current round of sanctions may not have the intended negative effect on the DPP[14].


 Conventionally, Taiwan has been viewed as an important and sensitive problem with regard to which China cannot make any compromises. Judging from conventional Chinese standards, what is happening today is stretching China’s patience to its limits. Whether China can live with such a situation from now onward is dependent on its domestic factors. It is assumed that President Xi Jinping has come under considerable domestic pressure because of the stagnating economy. It is also assumed that the military would be very frustrated with the current situation surrounding Taiwan. If he maintains his attitudes toward Taiwan, the most sensitive issue, which can be seen as weak, it can lead to criticism toward President Xi Jinping himself. On the other hand, with regard to the conventional red line, the current US administration has not behaved with full understanding and respect, which suggests that there is a possibility of misreading the counterpart’s response. It is fair to say that the current US-China relationship already contains the risk of intensifying the tensions between the them, which can be triggered by something related to Taiwan.

(Dated Sep 10, 2019)

1 The lecture at Columbia University was a closed session.

2 Sherry Hsiao, “US House passes Taiwan Assurance Act,” Taipei Times, May 9, 2019 (, accessed on Aug. 30, 2019).

3 “China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win,” Defense and Intelligence Agency, January 3, 2019, pp.33.
(, accessed on Aug. 30, 2019).

4 “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019,” Department of Defense, May 2, 2019, pp.91.
(, accessed on Aug. 30, 2019).

5 “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report,” Department of Defense, June 1, 2019, pp.30. (, accessed on Aug. 30, 2019).

6 The cordial treatment accorded to President Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to New York in July 2019 can be seen as a part of this.

7 Comments by a researcher of Taiwan in Washington, DC.

8 Its official opening in April 2019 was attended by Republican congressman and former Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

9 「《告台湾同胞书》发表40周年纪念会在北京隆重举行」『人民日报』,January 3rd, 2019, page 1.

10 「2019年8月16日外交部发言人华春莹答记者问」『中国外交部网站』, The Home Page of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, (, last accessed on September 2nd, 2019).

11 One analysis states that the Chinese government’s sanctions on US firms have rarely been effective in reality, as past practice has shown that the firms subjected to sanctions had very limited prospects of developing their businesses in China and that the firms that engaged with the Chinese market had technology and products that could not be replaced in China. Yun Sun, “Taiwan Arms Sales: Chinese Sanctions on US Firms,” PACNET 39, Pacific Forum, Honolulu, July 15, 2019. (, accessed on Sep. 4, 2019).

12 「大陆居民赴台个人游试点8月1日起暂停」『新华网』, July 31st, 2019
(, last accessed on September 4th, 2019).

13 Monma, Rira ‘Ko Wen-je establishes the Taiwan People’s Party’, East Asia, No.627, September, 2019, pp. 58-59.

14 Comments by a Taiwanese researcher living in Washington, DC.

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