US-Taiwan Relations: A Unique Partnership in the Indo-Pacific

Prerna Chahar
April 14, 2019


The enduring unofficial US-Taiwan partnership is a unique model for the Indo Pacific region and beyond. Over the past forty years, the relationship has weathered numerous downturns resiliently which has, in turn, strengthened the relations significantly. Though the relationship is unofficial, it still is unique in its own way. It has a long and honorable history that demonstrates the power and value of the partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.

In 1979, the official status of US-Taiwan diplomatic relations changed in the backdrop of abrogation of US-ROC “Mutual Defense Treaty” of 1954 and normalization of US-China relations. However, America’s commitment to Taiwan continued through landmark “Taiwan Relations Act” (TRA) of 1979 whose spirit and intent stands even today as robust as it was forty years ago.

Hence, amidst the celebration of US-Taiwan relations at ‘forty’ and the fear of China’s assertive claim to take control of the island, the fundamental question that arises is: how relevant, and vital the US-Taiwan partnership is in the Indo-Pacific and can this unique partnership survive for another forty years to come?

As the U.S. and Taiwan celebrate its unique forty years partnership, the road to another forty years remains tumultuous. Over the years, the potential idea of conflict between the US and China over Taiwan has certainly diminished but has not dissipated entirely. The US decision to persist with an arms sale to Taiwan, which has been reinforced under the Trump administration, remains as one of the strongest reasons for cross-strait conflict.

It is certain that future power play between the US and China over Taiwan is beset with chaos, confusion, and challenges. China continues to view the use of coercive means and military option as the last resort to settle the question of Taiwan. The United States, on the other hand, despite Chinese pressure looks towards preserving shared values and advancement of long-standing economic and security interests with Taiwan. Thus, China’s swift military expansion in the region and the defense of Taiwan present the most significant geopolitical challenge to the American security interests in the region.

Partnership in Perpetuity

The realization of how fragile yet invaluable the partnership is in the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S.  Congress passed the “Asia Reassurance Initiative Act” (ARIA) in 2018. According to the White House, the Act “establishes a multifaceted U.S. strategy to increase U.S. security, economic interests, and values in the Indo-Pacific region.” The Act encourages the U.S. and Taiwanese officials to travel and meet their counterparts at all levels, as guided by the “Taiwan Travel Act,” besides expressing “support for regular arms sales to Taiwan and to enhance the economic, political, and security relationship between Taiwan and the United States.”

In March-April 2019, to mark the 40th anniversary of the “Taiwan Relations Act,” the U.S. Congressmen introduced a bill called “Taiwan Assurance Act.” It reaffirms U.S. commitment to Taiwan and the need for better implementation of the “Taiwan Relations Act.” For forty years, TRA of 1979 and the “Six Assurances” of 1982 have been time tested frameworks to manage unofficial bilateral relations between the two sides. The TRA and the “Six Assurances” “are, and will remain, cornerstones of U.S. relations with Taiwan,” said US Senator Cory Garder.

In the past, TRA stood the test of time and remained the basis for enhancing and diversifying the relations between the two sides. In the future, it can play an essential role in protecting commercial, cultural, and people-to-people linkages between the two countries as well as promoting peace and stability in the region.

Lately, the tacit approval by the Trump administration to Taiwan’s request for Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16V fighter jets marked a dramatic shift in U.S. arms sales policy to Taiwan, as any such request for fighter jets was rebuffed by previous Clinton and Obama administrations. In the past, such attempts by the U.S. to sell Taipei advanced weapon systems to defend itself and advance its asymmetrical capabilities have always spooked Beijing.

The potential sale of new F-16s fighter jets also came as a bigger “political shock than a military shock” to Beijing. While addressing the issue of F-16s fighter jets, Geng Shuang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “China’s position to firmly oppose arms sales to Taiwan is consistent and clear…we have made stern representations to the U.S. and have urged the U.S. to fully recognize the sensitivity of this issue and the harm it will cause”. Beijing knows that such military support would hardly be a drop in the bucket compared to China’s military prowess. Nevertheless, the U.S. has strongly signaled its willingness and assurance to back democratically run island even in the face of conflict.

Hence, broadly, through the continuation of its unique security commitment to Taiwan, Washington can reinvigorate the signaling to other nations in the region that the U.S. is willing to support its allies and friends through its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy” (FOIP) and ensure status-quo which would be advantageous for big and small powers alike.

In particular, to maintain its unique partnership with Taiwan, in accordance to the “Taiwan Relations Act”, “Asia Reassurance Initiative Act” and “Taiwan Travel Act”, the US would continue to preserve and expand security, economic and trade relations, and boost Taiwan’s role on the international stage in supporting its participation in international organizations.

*** The author is a Doctoral Scholar, Centre for Canadian, U.S. & Latin American Studies (CCUS&LAS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***