By Nike Ching
The United States said its strong and bipartisan support for Taiwan’s democracy “comports with” the U.S.-China agreements and is “the right solution to maximize the stability” of the Taiwan Strait.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday congratulated Taiwan’s democratically elected President Tsai Ing-wen as she began her second term.
“We congratulated the winner of the election there. We were happy to see that,” Pompeo said in response to a question from VOA during a State Department news briefing.
His remarks came just hours before the State Department on Wednesday announced it had approved a possible defense sale of 18 MK-48 Mod6 Advanced Technology (AT) Heavy Weight Torpedoes (HWT) and related equipment at an estimated cost of $180 million to Taiwan.
“The democratic process in Taiwan has matured into a model for the world despite great pressure from outside. Taiwan has demonstrated the wisdom of giving a people a voice and a choice,” Pompeo told reporters.
In Mandarin Chinese, the White House deputy national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, commended Tsai’s inauguration via video message, saying the U.S. looked forward to “working closely with Taiwan across the full range of economic, cultural, educational, security, and other types of cooperative activities where we have so many common interests and values.”
This type of vocal support from senior officials, including from the top U.S. diplomat, on Taiwan’s inauguration day is rare and has been largely unheard of in recent years.
The remarks came after Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO). Washington has criticized what it says is China’s oversized influence on the WHO amid the COVID-19 pandemic, accusing WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of excluding Taiwan under pressure from China.
“I understand that Dr. Tedros’ unusually close ties to Beijing started long before this current pandemic, and that’s deeply troubling,” Pompeo said Wednesday.
The United States has long considered Taiwan a reliable partner, and support for Taiwan in the United States is usually bipartisan.
U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said the partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan would continue to flourish.
“The United States Congress looks forward to further strengthening our firm partnership and friendship, as we work together to defend human rights and dignity in the region throughout the world,” Pelosi said in her letter to Tsai dated Wednesday.
In China, the Beijing government vowed retaliation for Pompeo’s message to Taiwan. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned against such U.S. support of Taiwan.
“Practices that undermine China’s core interests and intervene in China’s domestic affairs will be met with forceful fightback, which will not to the slightest extent impede the historical trend of China’s reunification,” he said. “We urge the U.S. to immediately correct its mistakes.”
“China will take necessary measures in response to the U.S. erroneous practices, and the consequences will be borne by the U.S. side,” Zhao added.
China’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement Wednesday that the military would “take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard” China’s sovereignty.
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since a civil war in the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists and rebased on the island. China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has not ruled out use of force, if needed, to unite the two sides.
Taiwanese President Tsai rejects Beijing’s proposal for a “one-country, two-systems” form of rule that China uses to govern Hong Kong. Taiwan government surveys say about 80% of Taiwanese oppose unification with China.
“We are willing to engage in dialogue with China and make more concrete contributions to regional security,” Tsai said in her inauguration speech. “Both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term and prevent the intensification of antagonism and differences.”
The U.S. and Taiwan enjoy a robust unofficial relationship. The 1979 U.S.-China Joint Communique switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The relations between the U.S. and Taiwan have been governed by the Taiwan Relations Act that was passed by Congress in April 1979.
The U.S. provides defense equipment to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act.
The State Department said in a statement Wednesday evening that the approved sale of the proposed $180 million in military equipment “serves U.S. national, economic and security interests” by supporting Taiwan’s “continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces and to maintain a credible defensive capability.”
“The recipient will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen homeland defense,” the statement said.
Experts said the rare, high-level U.S. messages on Taiwan on the day of Tsai’s swearing-in ceremony was a pushback to China’s increasing pressure on Taiwan.
“The U.S. is showing strong support for Taiwan because of Beijing’s growing military, diplomatic and economic pressure on Taiwan, and because President Donald Trump’s administration is less concerned than prior administrations that its support for Taiwan will damage U.S.-China ties,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“China is almost certain to respond to this trend. The Chinese warning is not an empty threat. They will look for creative ways to harm American interests and prevent Taiwan from challenging China’s sovereignty claim,” Glaser added.
“The shameful snub by the WHO and China’s unnecessary politicization of global health has reinforced U.S. efforts to demonstrate maximum support for Taiwan,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
“The upgrade in U.S. levels of engagement with Taiwan is understandable and well-intentioned. A U.S. tighter embrace of Taiwan is, in a sense, the flip side of the angry demonization of China that has broad support in the U.S.,” Manning added, while cautioning “if the U.S. policy toward Taiwan is not carefully calibrated, it could backfire and lead to China becoming more reckless in its efforts to punish Taipei.”