Earlier this month, the US Department of State released its report on President Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy, “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision.” The report, timed to coincide with the East Asia Summit and the second iteration of the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, both held in Bangkok, provides an overview of the Trump administration’s vision for the Indo-Pacific and of the policies it has adopted in pursuit of that vision. As can be discerned from the report, the State Department views Taiwan as an important partner—but Taiwan arguably features less prominently than it could and should.
Taiwan is listed as one of the countries with which the United States is “joining […] to face emerging challenges.” The report also asserts that Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy “aligns closely” with America’s “vision and approach in the Indo-Pacific region.” In a section on “bilateral partnerships,” the report spends two paragraphs (more than on Japan and on the Republic of Korea) describing how the United States is “strengthening and deepening” its relationship with Taiwan and expressing concerns over the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) “actions to bully Taiwan,” which the report says “undermine the cross-Strait status quo.” This last argument is important for the United States to make publicly and repeatedly. Beijing has sought to paint Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s current president, as a troublemaker in the Taiwan Strait. Combatting that narrative by pointing to the PRC’s quite transparent efforts to upset stability in the Strait is crucial, as it puts pressure on Beijing to reverse course and on Taiwan’s friends and partners to stand by the island.
The discussion of US-Taiwan relations in the report highlights arms sales, the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (though not by name), and the first-ever Pacific Islands Dialogue, which Taiwan and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) co-hosted. In its sentence on the GCTF, the report describes Taiwan and AIT cooperating “to convene hundreds of Indo-Pacific policymakers and experts on issues including public health, women’s empowerment, media disinformation, and the digital economy.” The administration clearly sees Taiwan not only as a consumer of American security, but as a contributor to regional development.
Coming in the report’s closing paragraphs, this discussion may seem like an afterthought, but its inclusion is important, especially for international audiences. It conveys two things to foreign governments. First, at a time of deep political divisions in the United States, the Indo-Pacific strategy is a rare point of relative consensus. In other words, potential adversaries should not bother seeking to exploit political differences to undermine Democratic support for this aspect of the president’s foreign policy, as such efforts will be ineffective. Second, this discussion of bipartisan support among lawmakers is meant to convey that the current approach to the Indo-Pacific, at least at the broad level, is likely to outlast the current president. This, of course, includes the approach to Taiwan.
Taiwan is the last country named in the report. Indeed, it is the only one specifically raised in the report’s conclusion. That the United States is concerned about its fate and sees the island as a valuable partner is not hard to see. Even so, Taiwan could have, and probably should have, had a stronger presence in the report.
Perhaps most noticeable is Taiwan’s absence from the report’s discussion of US efforts to expand trade with the Indo-Pacific economies.
Taiwan’s absence from the report’s discussion of trade is especially notable in light of the inclusions of the new US-Japan agreements and the renegotiated Republic of Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), given that Tokyo and Seoul were hesitant to engage in new bilateral trade talks. President Tsai, on the other hand, has prioritized a bilateral FTA. Put simply, that the State Department has nothing to report on advances in US-Taiwan trade is a failure of policy; that it offers no aspirations is a failure of imagination.
As noted above, the report does make note of China’s “bullying” of Taiwan. But in reading this document, one does not get the sense that the Taiwan Strait is a potentially explosive flashpoint, that the use of force is a distinct possibility, or that a destructive war in the coming years cannot be ruled out. Absent that framing, it is not surprising that the report spends little time discussing efforts to address that challenge. Taiwan is an older US security partner than Japan and faces a far more dire threat than Japan (which, it must be noted, has a crucial role to play in countering that threat). This report does not grapple with that reality.
An Indo-Pacific vision that considered human rights and democracy as foundational values and a strategy that had their advancement as a central goal would likely envision a far more robust role for Taiwan. The liberal democracies in Asia with strong, resilient institutions are few in number and each has a role to play in advancing freedom in the region. It is unfortunate that the president’s Indo-Pacific strategy fails to value their capacities to make such contributions, or to recognize that such contributions would advance key American interests.
Full report by Michael Mazza: