U.S. Support for Taiwan Seen as Increasing

Scholar sees Taiwan benefiting from U.S.-China tensions.

The U.S. government is showing increased willingness to back Taiwan’s continued security and prosperity, notes Princeton University’s Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs whose specialty is U.S.-Chinese relations. In an interview, he said that Taiwan’s skillful handling of the COVID-19 crisis is winning it new respect around the world, at the same time as U.S.-China relations are rapidly deteriorating over trade tensions, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and other matters.

His point was later reinforced by the U.S. announcement that Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, would be coming to Taiwan as the highest ranking American official to visit the island since the 1990s.

Friedberg, who served from 2003 to 2005 in the office of the U.S. Vice President as deputy assistant for national-security affairs and director of policy planning, is a specialist in U.S.-China relations. His books include A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.

Long-simmering tensions between the two countries have sharply worsened since Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader in 2012, Friedberg said. In addition, over the past four years the Trump administration has taken a harder line approach to China policy over such issues as Beijing’s huge trade deficit with the U.S. and its institutionalized theft of American intellectual property. The COVID-19 pandemic, which the Trump administration blamed China for instigating, either purposely or by carelessness, then caused a further rift in the bilateral relationship, the professor said.

“Since the pandemic started, relations have spiraled down even further, partly because of the perception – not only in the United States, but elsewhere – that China mishandled the outbreak of COVID-19 and was not forthcoming about what was happening, with negative consequences for the rest of the world,” Friedberg said.

He also noted the “feeling that since the start of the pandemic, China has been behaving even more aggressively and its diplomacy has become more confrontational.” He referred to such actions by the PRC as “fully extending Chinese control over Hong Kong, picking a fight with India about their border, stepping up its activities in the South China Sea, and so on.”

“It’s begun to behave in ways that are more assertive and even aggressive internationally, and now poses a challenge or a threat to the United States and to other democratic countries,” Friedberg said. “There’s also a sense that China has been getting more repressive rather than liberalizing as some people had hoped, and that it’s not moving towards a full market economy – in fact, it’s going the other way.”  

Regardless of the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election in November, Friedberg said he sees the state of China-US relations as unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. “There’s now a consensus in the mainstream of both the Republican and Democratic parties that China poses a serious challenge to the United States. Whether there’s a second term for Trump or a new administration, I think the relationship is going to continue to be quite contentious and strained.”

In response to increased Chinese military capabilities and heightened threats that China will use force against Taiwan, the U.S. has strengthened its commitment to the island’s security, as shown by recent substantial weapons sales, Friedberg said. “I think the inclination has been to further signal our commitment to Taiwan, though it’s ambiguous because we don’t have a formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan,” he said. “But under the Taiwan Relations Act, we do have a commitment to come to their aid if they’re attacked or coerced. We’re certainly seeing it under the Trump administration: selling arms to Taiwan on a regular basis and also trying to help Taiwan get some more diplomatic space.”

Following its successful containment of the COVID-19 threat, Friedberg sees Taiwan as having an opportunity to capitalize on the broad international respect and goodwill it achieved. “China insists that Taiwan be excluded from international institutions like the WHO, and yet Taiwan’s performance in handling the pandemic was among the best in the world,” he said in the interview. As a result, Taiwan may be able to establish more international relationships involving the exchange of information and expertise.

“Taiwan has raised its profile and been successful in a way that just about nobody else has been,” said Friedberg. “It’s gained a lot of sympathy and respect.” Now the question is how that can be leveraged, he concluded.