The presidential and parliamentary elections held on Saturday in Taiwan are just the latest battle in a larger struggle to steer the country either closer to unification with China (the perceived platform of Taiwan’s ruling party, the Kuomintang, or KMT), or toward independence (the anticipated path of Taiwan’s primary opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP). For the first time in Taiwan’s history, its executive and legislative offices are simultaneously controlled by the DPP. Taiwanese voters handed that party landslide victories in both sets of elections. The DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen won more than 56 percent of the national vote, while the KMT’s presidential candidate mustered less than 32 percent—the largest victory margin since Taiwan’s first presidential election in 1996. In a similarly clear sweep, the DPP clinched 68 of 113 open legislative seats compared to the KMT’s 35, a loss of 29 seats from the last parliamentary election. The United States should support the will of Taiwan’s voters, as expressed in these elections, to remain autonomous from China.
Since President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT took office in 2008, China and Taiwan have grown closer than ever. Following his election, the two countries signed 23 agreements to expand economic and cultural ties. China is Taiwan’s largest trade partner; trade with the United States, its second-largest trade partner, is less than half as large. From 2007 to 2014, annual cross-strait trade increased nearly 44 percent, with Taiwan’s imports from China accounting for nearly 18 percent of its total imports and its exports to China making up more than 40 percent of its total exports. In 2009, the number of direct flights each week between China and Taiwan grew from 108 to 270. In 2014, an average of almost 11,000 Chinese visited Taiwan daily—up from an earlier daily quota of 300. In February 2014, the Chinese and Taiwanese governments held their first official talks, and this past November, the first meeting between leaders of those countries took place.
But the KMT strategy backfired. Many Taiwanese fear their country’s growing dependence on China and the possibility that China could compel unification without force. As a result, there is now widespread Taiwanese opposition to the KMT’s policy of deepening ties with China. In March 2014, after the KMT reneged on an agreement to allow a public, clause-by-clause review of a proposed trade-services agreement with China, Taiwanese activists protested for weeks. The following June, protests cut short a visit by a high-level Chinese government official to discuss the trade-services pact and to mend cross-strait ties. In the subsequent Taiwanese elections, the KMT suffered major losses in local races across the country, including in the race for Mayor of Taipei, a post the KMT had held for 16 years. The DPP’s consolidation of national power is thus the latest in a series of cases in which Taiwanese voters have expressed a desire to remain separate from China.
Strategic and moral considerations compel the United States to support Taiwanese independence. First, a free, thriving Taiwan reminds mainland Chinese how poorly their government treats them, a potential catalyst for liberalization in China, or at least a complication forcing that country to reduce its defense spending to improve domestic opinion. Second, if the United States were to abandon Taiwan, it would send the signal that Chinese efforts to drive the United States out of Asia are working. Beijing would then press even harder its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, and Washington’s regional partners would be more likely to acquiesce to Beijing’s demands, or to develop nuclear deterrents. Third, given Taiwan’s strategic location, high mountaintops ideal for radars, and deep-water ports allowing submarine access, reunification would significantly strengthen China’s military and extend its reach.
The U.S. government must take the following steps to help Taiwan remain free and to maintain the Asian balance of power.
First, it must strengthen Taiwan’s military. It is debatable whether Taipei should acquire costly, advanced weapons given that its meager defense budget is nearly 14 times smaller than Beijing’s, and because China fields a barrage of missiles to destroy large, less mobile targets. Even so, the Obama Administration’s planned arms sales to Taiwan—offered after both waiting longer than any U.S. administration and cutting the package value by two-thirds compared to its previous transfer in 2011—are deficient. The offer excludes requested big-ticket items (including upgraded F-16 jets and submarines), as well as a large number of more affordable, asymmetric weapons that are dispersible and can swarm invading forces (such as unmanned underwater vehicles, mobile missile launching platforms, and mines). Weary of unfulfilled promises to tender such systems (typically resulting from Beijing’s pressure), the island now plans to manufacture its own weapons. But Taipei lacks the experience and time needed to develop all of its defenses. Washington and Tokyo must therefore help. Additionally, the United States should invite Taiwan to co-develop military equipment and to participate in a military exchange program and joint military exercises.
Second, the United States must help Taiwan grow economically. While additional cross-strait trade is good, Taiwan should also diversify. Excluding its pact with China, Taiwan has trade agreements with only seven countries, each of which account for little of its total trade. The United States should thus nominate Taiwan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement among 12 countries, including the United States, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and Singapore, as a second round member. TPP signatories make up about 40 percent of global output and more than a third of world trade. These numbers will rise as additional countries join. As a member, Taiwan will be less susceptible to Chinese pressure and economic downturns, and it can increase its deficient defense spending.
Third, the United States must support greater Taiwanese participation in the international community. Given Chinese pressure, Taiwan has few diplomatic allies, foreign leaders refuse to meet with Taiwanese government officials, and the island is barred from joining many international organizations. The U.S. government should therefore press for Taiwanese membership in regional and international organizations, and President Obama or his successor should meet with Taiwan’s new President. Foreign leaders may then follow suit, showing China that others will rally behind the United States to oppose it.
Weakening the U.S.-Taiwan relationship will not moderate China’s response to the DPP’s election victories, nor will it meaningfully improve U.S.-China relations. Indeed, China has grown its most aggressive in the past four years, while President Ma pursued rapprochement with it and President Obama withheld arms from the island. Instead, a strong Taiwan, more closely allied to the United States and its regional partners, is the best recipe for cross-strait peace. Washington must begin working with its newly elected partners in Taipei to make this happen.