Happy New Year everyone! Welcome to Zooming In China Tea Time. I’m Simone Gao.
As the final days of 2021 draw to a close, the United States and Taiwan are no closer to clarity on the question of whether the US will militarily support Taiwan if China attacks. Despite ongoing threats from China and increasing displays of PLA military strength in the region, the US continues to cling to the Taiwan Relations Act as their guiding principle, a principle that is too ambiguous to be useful against the modern-day threat of Xi Jinping’s regime.
Why might the US be resisting a formal change of policy toward Taiwan despite the advancing threat posed by China? One reason may be found in Taiwan’s internal disputes over their current and desired relationship with Beijing and the impacts of those on US trade with Taiwan.
Taiwan’s minority party, the Kuomintang, supports deeper ties with China and, on December 18th, Taiwan had four referendums to a public vote, attempting a show of no confidence in the current government. Kuomingtang is the main author of these referendums. If these referendums had passed, they could have provided a springboard for the party to make a comeback in important mayoral elections next year. While the referendums are non-binding, they send a strong signal to current administrations about the values and ideals of the people they serve.
The most contentious of those votes was whether to reinstate the ban on pork imports containing ractopamine, a common feed additive used by American pig farmers. The additive helps to reduce the fat content of the meat, and leaner meat means a greater profit per animal. Ractopamine has been deemed safe at appropriate levels by US officials and is widely used in animal feed in the United States, but products containing it have been banned in the European Union, China, Russia, and 157 countries.
Taiwan had a similar ban until 2012, when then-President Ma Ying-jeou began allowing beef with low levels of this additive to be imported from the United States. Then, on August 28, 2020, President Tsai Ing-wen announced an executive order that would allow the import of pork containing ractopamine beginning on January 1, 2021.
The public and parliamentary protests quickly followed. And in January 2021, as the imports began, small gold and yellow stickers began appearing at Taiwanese restaurants proclaiming that they served only Taiwanese pork. President Tsai’s reassurance that these products would be clearly labeled to allow citizens a choice in whether they consumed them seemed to do little to calm public fears.
Public concerns seem to center on two issues: the potential impacts to the health of Taiwanese citizens and the impacts to Taiwanese pork farmers. Pork is an important domestic product for Taiwan, as it is a common staple in their cuisine. About 90 percent of pork is provided by local farmers, and they are part of a powerful agricultural lobby.
Polling in advance of the referendum vote indicated that it was likely to pass, with 55.4% projected to vote in favor of reinstating the ban. However, on December 18th, that referendum, along with the three others, failed.
This may have been due to low voter turnout, but it is equally likely that President Tsai’s recent arguments in favor of allowing the imports swayed public opinion. In particular, she pointed to the importance of developing an open trade agreement with their most important ally, the United States, at a time when China is increasing their aggression toward Taiwan.
In response to the vote, Tsai told reporters that “Taiwan’s people want to go out into the world and are willing to actively participate in the international community.” She expressed hope that these results would strengthen her case to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The controversy over meat imports containing ractopamine has been a consistent source of conflict between Taiwan and the United States. Initially, the controversy centered on Taiwan’s ban of American pork products. But the United States also believed that Taiwan repeatedly violated commitments to expand both their beef and pork markets. From 2006 to 2021, there were tensions in the Taiwan-US trade relations, including several cancellations of annual trade negotiations and failed bilateral trade agreements due to Taiwan’s unwillingness to fulfill its commitments.
In a recent article published on the United News Network in Taiwan, the president of the US-Taiwan Chamber of Commerce Rupert Hammond Chambers wrote that since President Ma Ying-jeou opened Taiwan to American beef containing ractopamine, consumption has increased steadily, yet no Taiwanese have experiences health problems due to that consumption. It would be illogical to assume that American pork containing ractopamine is unsafe if American beef containing the same was found to be safe for consumption over the past decade.
If it is not truly a question of safety, then, what is the concern? It is a taking of sides, with the current Taiwanese leadership favoring a trade and military relationship with the United States and the opposition leadership looking to reunite with China.
Taiwan now has to decide whether to become an important member of the international trade community, establish deep trade relations with the United States, or to become part of China’s economic alliances. In January 2021, as Taiwan began allowing US imports of pork, the Taiwan Affairs Office of the Communist Party of China declared that meat products produced in Taiwan or transshipped through Taiwan would be strictly prohibited from being imported into China.
That announcement forced Taiwan to choose whether to move closer to the US or the CCP in trade, and Taiwan has now clearly made its decision, one that has significant impacts on national security. When I interviewed the highest-ranking official to have visited Taiwan in the last 40 years, former Undersecretary of State Keith Krach, he mentioned the importance of Taiwan’s decision to begin importing American pork.
After Taiwan’s decision to allow pork imports, the US immediately began to promote the free trade agreement with Taiwan. This is vital to the security of Taiwan today, because a free trade agreement would encourage American companies to invest in Taiwan which will, in turn, encourage other countries to make similar investments. Those investments add a layer of security to Taiwan. If countries all over the world make and maintain significant investments in Taiwan, they will readily oppose any attempt by the CCP to take Taiwan by force and will form an alliance to protect Taiwan against the CCP. With the ongoing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, this is a critical matter for Taiwan.
The United States wants to protect Taiwan based on the ideals of protecting freedom and democracy as well as their own national security. But they need a meaningful and lasting commitment from Taiwan if they are to offer an unconditional and firm defense commitment. Through trade and investments, the US can help Taiwan join the international trade and security system and promote international investment in Taiwan. This is the most effective and least costly way to offer full defense protection of Taiwan.
Those trade and defense commitments would also help prevent the confusion created by recent Biden administration comments and ambiguity by the US Department of Defense toward the conflicts in the Taiwan Strait. When asked on multiple occasions if the US would protect Taiwan against a CCP attack, Biden has firmly said yes. Immediately afterward, however, the White House spokesperson and Department of Defense spokesperson clarified that the US policy toward Taiwan has not changed and remains centered on the Taiwan Relations Act. That means the US’s goal is to help Taiwan maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities and they regard any non-peaceful means to resolve the Taiwan issue, including embargoes and boycotts, as a serious threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific.
The language of this Act does not make clear whether the United States will use military force to defend Taiwan in the case of an invasion or attack by China. The ambiguity is a product of the historical context at the time it was enacted. At that time, the US was drawing in the CCP to jointly fight the Soviet Union, then seen as the greater US enemy. To establish diplomatic relations with the Chinese Communist Party, the US broke off their relations with the Republic of China, a move that was loudly contested by the opposition in America. To appease that opposition, the Taiwan Relations Act was created. This Act was a tactical strategy of rights and interests implemented by the US to achieve its strategic goal of fighting the Soviet Union.
But this strategic approach also serves ideals since the US-Soviet Cold War was never a mere battle for hegemony, instead, it was a collision of two ideologies. This makes sense if we look at the difference between the Cold War and conquests of Eurasia by Alexander the Great or the Mongol Empire. Those ancient wars were entirely aimed at conquering and dominating another civilization while the US-Soviet Cold War was a confrontation between two concepts and two ideologies: Communism and liberal democracy.
The United States and the Soviet Union formed their respective camps and found allies to stand with them. Those allies allow them to expand their sphere of influence, but they also often lead to less-than-ideal partnerships in the name of overcoming a great evil empire or ideology. In the case of the US, that meant joining forces with the CCP to fight what they perceived to be a greater evil in the Soviet Union.
Currently in the United States, the ideals of freedom and democracy, the bedrock of this nation, have not changed. But the strategic goals, however, have changed. The Soviet Union, the core rival in the Cold War period, has been replaced by the CCP who has now become enemy number one for the United States. The CCP today far exceeds the Soviet threat to the United States during the Cold War period. It is threatening the core value system and political order cultivated by Western civilization. Given that, we could see the Sino-US confrontation as a battle of ideals for the survival of civilization.
Under such circumstances, the strategic goals have changed. How can the United States maintain its policy of appeasement to the CCP? The original reason for a half-hearted commitment to Taiwan was to appease the CCP. The need for that appeasement has now disappeared. What is currently in line with the national interests and ideals of the United States is to make every effort to weaken the CCP, and part of that effort must include uniting with the world in defense of Taiwan.
President Biden was right when he repeatedly stated that if the CCP uses force, the US must match that force in defense of Taiwan. That would be the right decision, and I hope he is speaking the truth, despite the White House and Department of Defense later weakening and walking back those statements.
During this dance of strategic ambiguity, the White House and Department of Defense also made the mistake of misjudging the genuine thinking of the CCP. The US has remained consistent in their opinion that as long as the status quo could be kept, as long as neither Taiwan nor China provoke each other, meaning the CCP should not attack Taiwan, but Taiwan should not declare independence either. Then peace could be achieved in the Taiwan strait forever.
That’s not true. To China, keeping the status quo is equivalent to Taiwan’s de facto independence. For the CCP, there is just one acceptable option and that is cross-strait reunification.
It is a wrong decision to hope that the two sides of the strait will continue to maintain the status quo. This hope will not be realized, and it will embolden the CCP to feel that the United States is not firm in defending Taiwan. If they are so emboldened, they are likely to take risks and attack Taiwan by force. The US should make the CCP understand that there is no ambiguity on Taiwan. The PLA’s military strength will never catch up with the United States. If they choose to attack Taiwan, the US and its allies WILL come to Taiwan’s defense and that day may be the beginning of the collapse of the Chinese Communist regime. The real solution to the crisis in the Taiwan Strait lies in dispelling the CCP’s desire to reunify with Taiwan.
That’s all for today. Thanks for watching Zooming In China. Please like, share, subscribe and donate to this program if you like my content. Happy new year to all of you. I will see you very soon again.