President Trump’s National Security Strategy bluntly states that China is challenging “American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” And while much attention has been focused on Beijing’s expanding military presence in the South China Sea, its effort to expand its influence across Asia and Europe through its “one belt, one road” projects, and unfair trade practices, China’s challenge to the administration’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region is increasingly taking place in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Since the inauguration of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, Beijing has ratcheted up pressure on the world’s only Chinese-speaking democracy, taking aim at Taiwan economically, militarily, and diplomatically. It has curbed Chinese tourism to Taiwan and squeezed Taiwanese companies doing business on the mainland to do Beijing’s bidding back home. China has made naval and air exercises around Taiwan routine and established a northbound civilian air route up the Taiwan Strait without consulting Taipei. Nor is Beijing shy in using its own version of “sharp power”—through information warfare and financial coercion—to sow political dissent within Taiwan and attempt to purchase the loyalty of the Taiwanese elite. And China has stepped up efforts to further isolate Taiwan diplomatically by attempting to flip the island’s few existing state-to-state formal ties to itself and by blocking Taiwan’s representatives from even observer status at international organizations like the World Health Organization and Interpol.
For her part, President Tsai has responded calmly to Beijing’s pressure tactics, keeping open the possibility of engagement while looking to expand relations with the neighboring states of South and Southeast Asia. The Taiwanese public remains wary of any talk of unification with the mainland, peaceful or otherwise, with almost three-quarters supporting a position of de facto or de jure independence from China. The Nationalist party (KMT) that long ruled Taiwan remains willing to accept the notion that the island is part of “one China,” but the KMT is on life support, with new opposition parties emerging that are even more pro-independence than President Tsai’s Democratic Progressives (DPP).
Slightly further south and west, China has stepped up its campaign to reduce Hong Kong’s promised autonomy. Students and other activists protesting Beijing’s tighter grip have been met with harassment, arrests, and jail time. Some pro-independence legislators have been disqualified and others prevented from running for office. A diminution of the independence of the once-vaunted judiciary and of the city’s vibrant free press, not to mention abductions of residents by Chinese state security agents, are seen by many in Hong Kong as clear signs that Beijing has no intention of abiding by its promised governing paradigm of “one country, two systems.” To the contrary, President Xi Jinping compares the relationship to “a long-separated child coming back to the warm embrace of his mother.” But if Hong Kong is a child, it’s more like one raised in another home, with little affection for its mother. One poll found that only 3 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds in Hong Kong think of themselves as being broadly Chinese.
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Despite the Trump administration’s stated focus on the pervasive threat of Chinese power, its reaction to Beijing’s pressure campaign toward Taiwan and Hong Kong has been muted at best.
In Hong Kong, passive observation seems to be the name of the game. State Department officials have gone to great lengths not to offend Beijing over its handling of Hong Kong and its persecution of the city’s democrats. During the tenure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the State Department resisted congressional efforts to update the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act to make clear to Beijing that America has an interest in the city’s autonomy.
On Taiwan, so far, it’s been largely confusion. The president-elect famously took a phone call from President Tsai in late 2016 but then, without any policy review by senior staff, reaffirmed the one-China policy so the Chinese president would take his call and proceeded to publicly state that he would do nothing about Taiwan without first consulting President Xi, a clear violation of U.S. policy dating back to President Reagan’s “six assurances” to Taipei.
With a number of key policy positions left unfilled during the administration’s first year, the departments of State and Defense have been slow to signal just how much effort will be made to back Taiwan’s attempts to participate in various multilateral forums or what kind of arms package might be offered to support Taiwan’s defense needs. The State Department did recently dispatch a deputy assistant secretary to Taipei to reiterate the administration’s commitment to Taiwan and, with Pentagon backing, Washington has okayed American defense companies selling technology in support of Taiwan’s plans to build its own submarines.
But far too often Taiwan is seen as a liability, not what it is: a democratic island of stability of more than 20 million that, if permitted, could be an economic and strategic partner for the United States in the region. There is unfulfilled potential in the relationship, if the administration would only take advantage of the Taiwan Travel Act, which calls for the repeal of self-imposed restrictions on what level of government or military officials can visit Taiwan, and this year’s defense authorization bill, which supports strengthened ties with the Taiwanese military. For far too long, one administration after another has fallen short of the policy mandates laid out in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which declared peace in the Taiwan Strait to be a U.S. national interest and called for maintaining close relations with the people of Taiwan.
There is an opportunity at hand to reverse course. Taiwan can play a key role in the Trump administration’s concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Taiwan has been neglected in previous U.S. regional initiatives, such as the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” As a geostrategic matter, Taiwan serves as a breakwater to China’s ambitions to push its military power into the broader Pacific and sits between two states—Japan and the Philippines—with which the United States has formal security ties. More broadly, the Tsai government has launched a “New Southbound Policy” to bolster a full range of relations with the Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean states. These efforts could easily complement Washington’s own cooperation with Australia, India, and Japan. Through its humanitarian assistance in the region, its participation in the coalition to counter ISIS, and its effort to enforce sanctions against trade with North Korea, Taiwan has shown that it is a responsible international partner.
The administration could also do more to help Taiwan push back against Beijing’s campaign to isolate the island diplomatically. The United States can take a stronger stand with Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to encourage them not to abandon those relationships under pressure from Beijing. The State Department should also make it a priority to assist Taiwan’s efforts to gain entry to multilateral organizations, even if only as an observer. Given the size of Taiwan’s population and economy, it should have a voice in key multilateral forums on international law enforcement, public health, and civil aviation. The State Department should help build a coalition to support Taiwan’s efforts to participate in these forums, starting with Japan and Australia but also including U.S. allies in Europe. If China wants to politicize these nonpolitical issues, there should be repercussions. The administration and Congress should examine China’s role in multilateral organizations that block Taiwan and assess whether continued support of these agencies is appropriate.
Finally, as the tenth-largest trading partner of the United States, Taiwan should be given priority as the administration develops its regional trade agenda. Taiwan had hoped eventually to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, with the president opting out of TPP for now, advances in the U.S.-Taiwan economic relationship appear uncertain. The fact that Taiwan was not exempted from the president’s initial round of tariffs on steel and aluminum is yet another reminder of how counterproductive U.S. policy toward Taiwan has been.
If current U.S. policy toward Taiwan is confused, it is still a step above the persistent American silence on events in Hong Kong. The 1992 act gave Hong Kong a preferred status, stipulating that Washington would continue to deal with the territory in commercial and financial matters, transportation, access to technology, and international organizations—regardless of the transfer of sovereignty from the U.K. to China. However, as the law makes clear, this carve-out for Hong Kong rested on China’s living up to its pledge of autonomy for the territory internally and respecting Hongkongers’ fundamental rights as set out by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Long forgotten, but still a matter of black-letter law, the act states, “The human rights of the people of Hong Kong are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong.”
At a minimum, the ’92 act needs updating to reflect China’s backsliding. The goal should be to make it more costly for Beijing to squeeze Hong Kong, with perhaps a first step being a provision calling for sanctioning Chinese officials who have a hand in undermining the territory’s autonomy.
Hong Kong and Taiwan are effectively canaries in the coal mine, providing advance warning to the United States and its allies of dangerous Chinese ambitions. Congress and the Trump administration would do well to keep a close watch on the health of the two to make sure they don’t become the first victims of China’s increasingly toxic behavior. Without a U.S. agenda supporting freedom for Taiwan and Hong Kong, the new U.S. strategy toward the region will ring hollow.
Jamie Fly is senior fellow and director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Gary Schmitt is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center at the American Enterprise Institute.