The absence of diplomatic ties hasn’t deterred the establishment of collaboration in a host of different fields.
During this commemoration year for the Taiwan Relations Act, Taiwan and the U.S. can take satisfaction from knowing that 40 years and the loss of formal diplomatic relations haven’t dimmed the deep-seated friendship and widespread cooperation between them.
In fact, many would argue that the bilateral relationship is more firmly grounded than it has been in years. A number of Taiwan’s long-time supporters in the U.S. are serving in high-level positions in President Donald Trump’s administration, and powerful members of Congress from both political parties have been regularly voicing encouraging words for Taiwan and proposing measures to strengthen the relationship.
A tangible expression of the American commitment to Taiwan is set to take place May 6 when the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – the U.S. Embassy in everything but name – opens the doors for business at a spankng new complex built at a cost of US$255.6 million in Taipei’s Neihu district.
In terms of defense assistance, a major U.S. arms sales package for Taiwan may be in the offing. Taiwan last month officially submitted requests to purchase 66 F-16 Viper fighter jets for its air force and M1 Abrams tanks for the army. The Trump administration and Congress are reportedly likely to approve the deal.
Some of the increased U.S. attention to Taiwan may be due to the souring of American relations with China. Under Trump, the U.S. government has engaged in a tariff war with Beijing over what it sees as China’s unfair trade practices. Washington has also expressed concern about China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and its potential threat to security across the Indo-Pacific.
More fundamentally, the closeness of the relationship is based on what the two governments constantly cite as their shared values of democracy, freedom, and human rights. One of the latest such comments from a high-level U.S. official was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s praise for Taiwan – at a Micronesia Presidents’ Summit in February – as a “democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world.”
Based on that mutual trust, the two governments have engaged in many more cooperative activities than the general public in either country would be aware of. A sampling:
- Defense. Representatives of the U.S. and Taiwan military are in frequent communication regarding issues related to Taiwan’s defense readiness and regional strategic planning. Elite Taiwan military units and fighter pilots have received training in the U.S.
- Space programs. Over the past nearly two decades, Taiwan’s National Space Organization has jointly developed a series of weather monitoring and forecasting satellites together with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It was announced in February that construction had been completed in Taiwan of the latest cluster of six satellites, known as Formosat-7, which were being readied for shipment to the U.S. for launching.
- Digital economy forums. Experts from the two countries are brought together periodically for discussion of policy issues and regulatory approaches affecting such areas of growing importance as e-commerce, cybersecurity, and financial technology. In an offshoot of this program, the two governments hope to utilize Taiwan’s experience in cultivating startups to help encourage entrepreneurship in Southeast Asian countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) is slated to be involved in this effort, as is Taiwan’s Small and Medium Enterprise Administration.
- Training for third countries. Among the most successful collaborative efforts has been the Global Cooperation Training Framework. The program has enabled the U.S. to tap into Taiwan’s expertise and experience in offering training to mid-level government officials and civil-society professionals from Southeast Asian countries in a wide variety of subjects. The invitations are issued by the American Embassies in the third countries, giving Taiwan a highly appreciated opportunity to overcome the political pressures that often block its participation in the international arena.
Since the program began nearly five years ago, 16 training sessions with a total of more than 300 attendees have been held in Taiwan. Among the topics covered have been women’s empowerment, combating transnational crime, fighting epidemics such as dengue fever and the sika virus, and defending democracy through media literacy.
- Intellectual property rights. Generally once a year, AIT arranges for American judges specializing in IPR law to spend a few days in Taiwan passing along some of their knowledge and experience to Taiwanese judges and prosecutors. This exposure has contributed to the notable improvement in IPR enforcement in Taiwan over the past decade or more.
- Environmental protection. Taiwan and the U.S. engage in a host of cooperative initiatives on such topics as conservation, deforestation, and raising environmental consciousness among young people. Some of the programs have been held together with third countries.
- Scholarly exchange. Through the Fulbright program in Taiwan, jointly funded by the U.S. and Taiwan governments, over the past 60 years some 1600 Taiwanese scholars have received grants to spend a year in the U.S. doing research or study projects. An equal number of American academics have been brought to Taiwan for similar projects. In recent years, the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange, which runs Fulbright Taiwan, has expanded its mission to include various forms of educational assistance, especially for English-language training. Each year it brings more than 100 young graduates of American colleges to Taiwan to serve as teaching assistants in public schools around the island, especially in remote and underprivileged areas.
- Humanitarian assistance. An example of cooperation in this area is the role of vessels in Taiwan’s extensive deep-sea fishing fleet in coming to the rescue of other ships in trouble. The U.S. Coast Guard recently held a ceremony in Kaohsiung to present awards to the owners and crew of Taiwanese fishing boats that have assisted with search and rescue operations.
- Marine science. As an island nation, Taiwan has developed considerable expertise in oceanic-related issues, such as the control of offshore pollution. Researchers from NOAA frequently visit Taiwan to share information. In a joint project with NOAA, instrumentation located in Taiwan helps tracks the level of airborne mercury absorbed by the Pacific Ocean.
- Container security. Officers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are based at Kao-hsiung and Keelung harbors to work with Taiwanese customs officials to intercept any dangerous goods before they are transported to the U.S. Besides the Container Security Initiative, a separate Megaports program specifically checks for radioactive cargo.
- Nuclear security. A joint group of specialists meets annually to review information on the security of Taiwan’s nuclear power plants. As Taiwan goes through the process of decommissioning those units in the coming several years as their licensure expires, the U.S. experts are expected to provide valuable guidance on proper procedures.
- Water management. Taiwan has had longstanding cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which provides advice on the design and location of potential new reservoirs and techniques for removing silt from existing reservoirs.
All of these programs are in addition to the day-to-day promotion and facilitation of travel, trade, and investment between the two countries.
Since November 2012, travel to the U.S. has been expedited through Taiwan’s admission into the U.S. government’s Visa Waiver Program. Taiwan is one of only seven economies in the Asia Pacific and 37 worldwide to enjoy visa-free entry into the U.S. In 2017, Taiwanese passport-holders also became eligible to enroll in Global Entry, a “trusted traveler” program that simplifies the entry procedures at American airports. In return, American citizens became the first non-residents of Taiwan eligible to participate in Taiwan’s equivalent e-Gate program.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, over 475,000 Taiwanese visited the U.S. in 2017, while Taiwan Tourism Bureau statistics show that close to 575,000 American citizens came to Taiwan in 2018.
Over 80,000 U.S. citizens are estimated to be in Taiwan on any given day, including 17,000 tourists, 15,000 Americans registered as legal alien residents, and over 48,000 dual nationals.
With nearly 22,500 Taiwanese students enrolled in the U.S., Taiwan ranked as the seventh largest source of international students at American universities.
Two-way trade between Taiwan and the U.S. came to US$76 billion in 2018, an 11% increase over the year before. Taiwan ranked as the 11th largest trading partner with the U.S. “The expanding range of our trade in goods and services is one of the most remarkable features of the commerical relationship,” a statement from AIT noted. “Taiwan has always been a major buyer of U.S. agricultural exports, but over time has also become a leading buyer of U.S. equipment used in advanced technology manufacturing, such as for semiconductors.”
American companies have long been among the leading foreign investors in Taiwan. They have been major players in such sectors of the economy as technology, retail, and financial services.
In the past several years, Taiwanese companies have shown an increased interest in investing in the U.S. Last year Taiwan’s delegation to the Select-USA Investment Summit in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Department of Commerce, consisted of over 65 companies, the largest contingent worldwide.