The US-Taiwan Relations and the Re-election of Tsai Ing-wen

The Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Tsai Ing-wen swept the 15 th General elections with 57.1 per cent votes. The other candidates contesting the election were Kaohsiung Mayor, Han Kuo-yu from the Kuomintang (KMT) party and Chairman James Soong of the People’s First Party (PFP) who received 38.6 per cent and 4.3 per cent of votes respectively. In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen got elected with 56.1 per cent votes and was the first women President of Taiwan. Given her vast experience in handling the cross-strait relations, she also proved her ability to handle pressure by China.

The last four years were turbulent for Tsai Ing-wen. Although she made frequent visits to her allies, yet Taiwan lost eight of them- Kiribati, Solomon Islands, El Salvador, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Panama, Gambia and Sao Tome and Principle - due to pressures from Beijing.

The two most important factors for the victory of Tsai Ing-wen was the growing relations between Taiwan and the US under President Donald Trump and the prolong protests in Hong Kong. The Taiwan Relation Act of 1979 is the foundation of the US-Taiwan relation and the 2017 US National Security Strategy document pronounced Washington’s continued commitment to Taiwan and stated “maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our ‘One China Policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defence needs and deter coercion.” It may be recalled, Tsai Ing-wen gave a congratulatory phone call to Donald Trump even before he was formally declared as the President of the United States. An 11-member Taiwanese delegation also attended the swearing- in ceremony and their presence had drawn sharp criticism from China.

The US has been the major supplier of arms to Taiwan and according to the Arms Control Association, between 1980 and 2010, arms agreement worth US$ 21.21 billion were signed with Taiwan. During President Barack Obama’s presidency there was an approval of arms sales worth US$ 1.83 billion. This generous sales policy has continued under President Donald Trump. The first sale of arms under President Trump was announced on 30 June 2017 and the State Department announced arms sales package worth US$ 1.4 billion to Taiwan. The deal included seven items, including technical support for early warning radar, anti-radiation missiles, torpedoes and components for SM-2 missiles. On 12 December 2017, Donald Trump signed the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA). The second sale package worth US$ 330 million was signed in October 2018. In July 2019, the US agreed to sell M1A2T Abrams tanks, Stinger missiles and related equipment to Taiwan. The entire deal is valued at around US$ 2.2 billion. The increasing US defence assistance to Taiwan indicates that the US will support Taiwan to maintain its sovereign identity. Additionally, in April 2019, two US warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

Notably, in June 2018, the US upgraded the defacto embassy American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) with an investment of US$ 250 million on the premises. The inauguration of the embassy itself marked “a new chapter in a story that has been decades in the making”. It is an indication of the US changed stance towards Taiwan. On 9 January 2018, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US ratified two bills namely the Taiwan Travel Act and a bill in support of Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Organization (WHO).

The domestic political developments in Hong Kong also added to Tsai Ing-wen’s victory. The Hong Kong protests became the central issue in the election campaign. In fact, the issue of extradition bill has its genesis in Taiwan and came to the forefront after a Hong Kong student, murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan. During her election campaigning, Tsai Ing-wen had guaranteed that “Taiwan will not become Hong Kong” and asked Taiwanese citizens to respect the “young people in Hong Kong that have shed their lives and blood and tears to show us that ‘one country, two systems' is not possible”. She called on the voters of Taiwan to reject the “one country, two systems” model in Hong Kong and reminded them that China has proposed the same for Taiwan.

Ahead of the elections, to safeguard its internal political structure and the upcoming Presidential elections, Taiwan passed an “Anti-Infiltration Law” that protects Taiwan from individuals, institutions or organisations affiliated with or sponsored by the government, political party or other political groups of a foreign hostile force.The law was aimed at curbing Chinese influence and interference in the elections. The law states that anyone who receives funding, instructions or donations from “external forces” to mobilise public rallies, for election campaign activities, to lobby government officials or lawmakers, or interrupt the social order could be jailed for up to five years and fined up to NTD10 million.

Soon after the election results, the US welcomed Tsai Ing-wen’s victory as symbol of Taiwan’s “robust democratic system”. On the contrary, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China stated: “the election in the Taiwan region is a sub-national affair in China. We deplore and firmly oppose those countries’ violation of the one-China principle by taking such a move, and we have lodged solemn representations.” 

After her re-election, in an interview to the BBC, TsaiIng-wen reiterated that Taiwan need not declare its independence because it’s already an independent country. “We call ourselves the (Republic of China) Taiwan, we have a government, we have a military, and we have elections”. She also spoke about the risk of prospects of war with China that looms over Taiwan. Without naming the US she categorically mentioned that Taiwan has sufficient capability to defend itself. Further, she added “invading Taiwan or trying to invade Taiwan is something going to be very costly for China.”Hence much of the future of Taiwan is dependent on the US and its support at the international level.

Dr Teshu Singh is Research Fellow with Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), New Delhi.

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