US Vice-President Mike Pence addressing the Hudson Institute on the administration's policy towards China. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson
US Vice-President Mike Pence addressing the Hudson Institute on the administration's policy towards China. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

As Washington pursues a “free and open Indo-Pacific” foreign policy under the Trump administration, many onlookers have struggled to define exactly what that policy will mean for those in the Indo-Pacific region. Among those onlookers anxiously awaiting details of the US strategy are the Taiwanese, who since 1979 have come under the security blanket of the US Taiwan Relations Act.

While not equivalent to the mutual defense treaty in place from 1955 until 1979, the act does seek “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

Yet in recent months, as Beijing ramps up pressure on Taiwan, some analysts are again questioning the strength of that commitment, as an “America first” US president confronts Beijing over trade, and an independent-minded Taiwanese president faces rising threats from “China’s aggressive maritime strategy.” Others fear the deal-making US president will sacrifice Taiwan as a “pawn” to gain more important pieces, such as Iran or North Korea, on the geopolitical chessboard.

While the term “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) has been used in the past by Australia, India, Japan and others, the US latched on to the concept last November, during President Donald Trump’s speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEOs Summit in Danang, Vietnam. This month, the FOIP from Washington’s point of view gained some definition after a speech by Vice-President Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute, an American think-tank. In his comments on October 4, Pence significantly revealed an end to Washington’s strategic patience with China:

“After the fall of the Soviet Union, we assumed that a free China was inevitable. Heady with optimism at the turn of the 21st century, America agreed to give Beijing open access to our economy, and we brought China into the World Trade Organization.

“Previous administrations made this choice in the hope that freedom in China would expand in all of its forms – not just economically, but politically, with a newfound respect for classical liberal principles, private property, personal liberty, religious freedom – the entire family of human rights. But that hope has gone unfulfilled.”

Pence also took time to devote a significant portion of his speech to specify what the Trump administration’s tougher policy toward China means for Taiwan, shaming Beijing for specific actions to undermine Taiwan’s international status:

“And since last year alone, the Chinese Communist Party has convinced three Latin American nations to sever ties with Taipei and recognize Beijing. These actions threaten the stability of the Taiwan Strait, and the United States of America condemns these actions.

“And while our administration will continue to respect our One China Policy, as reflected in the three joint communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act, America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people….

“Chinese authorities have also threatened US companies that depict Taiwan as a distinct geographic entity, or that stray from Chinese policy on Tibet. Beijing compelled Delta Airlines to publicly apologize for not calling Taiwan a ‘province of China’ on its website. And it pressured Marriott to fire a US employee who merely liked a tweet about Tibet.”

This month, the Taiwanese got an inkling of what the US commitment to Taiwan and a “free and open Indo-Pacific” mean for them when two US warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

The two ships, the USS Curtis Wilbur, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, and the USS Antietam, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, “conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit on October 22, in accordance with international law,” according to Christopher Logan of the Office of the US Secretary of Defense, who added: “The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”

The “freedom of navigation operation,” or FONOP, by the two US warships coincided with the launch of the first week-long naval exercise by China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, off the city of Zhanjiang in southern Guangdong province. Several Chinese warships safely followed the two US warships through the Taiwan Strait, according to two US defense officials.

Despite the strong words of support by Pence and the overt flexing of American military muscle, some are not  convinced of the Trump administration’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The decision by Trump to avoid the ASEAN meeting in Singapore and the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea next month, and to send Pence in his stead, “will only amplify regional concerns that America’s commitment is opportunistic, and not enduring,” according to Abigail Grace, a research associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Dr Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, is also skeptical, suggesting in an e-mail to Asia Times that while US initiatives draw serious attention from regional governments, “the bigger question that always persists is, to what extent the US government would commit to those initiatives.”

Koh believes “much more work needs to be done to elucidate what FOIP means and what it really entails for the region.” For now, as Koh points out, the US FOIP appears to be “visibly represented by intensified US defense and security engagements in Southeast Asia especially.”

This month, Beijing certainly tested the Trump administration’s commitment to a FOIP, resulting in a near collision with a US destroyer sailing in the South China Sea. Many of the status-quo-minded Taiwanese are thankful such an incident did not occur during the FONOP conducted by the US in the Taiwan Strait, though given a nascent “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy, some will remain skeptical over the coming months concerning Washington’s commitment to Taiwan in the face of Beijing’s increasing belligerence.

Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

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