Taiwan’s geostrategic importance in the Indo-Pacific region is undeniable. It is
the closest point to the Asian continent on the First Island Chain running from Kamchatka to
Sumatra which makes it central to the security and strategic geography of the region. In that
context, a number of significant statements by Taiwanese political leadership have endorsed
the relevance of Indo-Pacific in Taipei’s strategic thinking. On 7 October 2019, speaking at
the Yushan Forum, President Tsai Ing-wen highlighted that Taiwan is indispensable to
making the Indo-Pacific region peaceful and prosperous. At the 2019 Indo-Pacific Dialogue
too, she underlined that as a full partner in the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Strategy (FOIP), Taiwan is ready and willing and able to do more in the Indo-
Pacific region and beyond.
Initiatives Taken by Taiwan
Ever since the Trump administration introduced the FOIP, Taiwan embraced the concept and articulated its interest in supporting the strategy and moved ahead to frame its response. It made significant announcement about its mission to defend freedom and openness attached to the FOIP strategy and protecting it. In May 2018, the government established the Indo- Pacific Affairs Section within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Subsequently, in August 2018, Tsai Ing-wen and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu participated in the Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue titled “Promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region. The US too made clear that Taiwan is vital for the FIOP and former US defence secretary Ash Carter reiterated that Taiwan was part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy network and favoured stability in the region and resolution of cross-strait issues through dialogue.
Taiwan is working with the US under the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), a grouping of 41 participants from 25 Indo-Pacific countries. Both sides are also committed to expand their robust cooperation to address global challenges such as international humanitarian assistance, public health, environment protection, energy, technology, education and regional development. The GCTF mandate also includes other conventions about good governance, entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment, bridging the digital divide, cybersecurity.
Taiwan and the US have jointly launched the Indo-Pacific Democratic Governance Consultations, a platform to enhance cooperation and pursue joint projects aimed at advancing good governance and human rights. On 27 June 2019, David Bohingan Acting President and Chief Executive officer of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) met President Tsai Ing-wen and confirmed US commitment to partner with Taiwan and explore further opportunities for investment in the Indo-Pacific region.
The New Southbound Policy initiated by President Tsai Ing-wen on 16 August 2016 should also be seen as an outreach into the Indo-Pacific region. It targets 18 counties of the Indo- Pacific region and aims to strengthen Taiwan’s economic ties with ASEAN, South Asia, New Zealand and Australia. Its purpose is to develop economic and trade relations, cooperation in science and technology, culture, resource sharing, talent and markets, and create a new cooperation model that seeks mutual benefits and win-win situation.
Taiwan-US Relations in the Indo-Pacific Region
The June 2019 US Indo-Pacific Strategy report positions Taiwan comparatively high among other nations in the region. The report identifies seven categories of allies and partners and notes “As democracies in the Indo-Pacific, Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Mongolia are reliable, capable, and natural partners of the United States. All four countries contribute to US missions around the world and are actively taking steps to uphold a free and open international order.” This is a sharp departure from the 2017 US National Security Strategy in which Taiwan was mentioned only in reference to the US commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to sell arms.
Taiwan and the US share democratic values and some US strategists believe Taiwan is a potential flashpoint between US-China relations. Washington is constantly reevaluating defence deals with Taiwan and the potential sale of USD 2.2 billion in arms, including Abrams tanks and Stinger missiles is significant. It is also important to note that the American Institute in Taiwan has moved to a new huge compound and the Coordination Council for North American Affairs (CCNAA) has been renamed as Taiwan Council for US Affairs.
Taiwan’s contribution to FOIP is an ongoing process. The collaborations are in the areas of digital governance, energy and sharing best practices in law enforcement. Despite the proactive foreign policy overtures, Taiwan has lost two diplomatic allies i.e. Solomon Island and Kiribati. Ironically, since Tsai Ing-wen assumed power in 2016, Taiwan has lost seven diplomatic partners due to aggressive Chinese diplomacy. It remains to be seen how the US can support Taiwan’s diplomatic losses.