TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Taiwan’s relations with the United States have reached their strongest point ever despite a lack of formal diplomatic ties as officials in Washington value the Asian government’s role in international causes, Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Friday.
Close ties with the United States give Taiwan military and diplomatic support that it struggles to get elsewhere because most countries recognize Beijing over Taipei. Taiwan faces a chronic military threat from nearby China.
The government of U.S. President Donald Trump, though it also maintains formal ties with Beijing instead of with Taipei, is locked in a trade dispute with China and often sends naval ships to oppose Chinese maritime expansion.
“I agree with most assessments that Taiwan’s relations with the United States relations are very good and probably better than at any time before,” Wu told VOA in an interview. He cited a pickup in recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, totaling some $12 billion, more high-level dialogue than before, and the welcome for Taiwan's president in the United States in July as examples.
“So, if you put all this together, I think Taiwan-U.S. relations are very good,” he said.
More friends in the United States
Taiwan has “more friends” in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump than it has had before, Wu added, citing increased cooperation on issues that matter to Washington.
Previous U.S. presidents made less frequent contact with Taiwan, approved fewer arms sales and focused more on getting along with China.
Washington broke official ties with Taipei in 1979 to establish relations instead with the bigger, faster-growing China. Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China, not a state entitled to its own diplomacy.
At the time, Washington agreed to downgrade ties with Taiwan as a condition of recognizing China.
Taiwan has cultivated friendships in the United States since 2016 by helping Washington squelch terrorism and promote religious freedom abroad, Wu said. Like the United States, the government in Taipei also gave aid to Venezuela this year. Taiwan sent 3.5 tons of medical supplies to Venezuela for 106,000 patients.
“If the United States needs some support on international issues, it can count on Taiwan to make contributions,” Wu said. U.S. officials believe Taiwan to be making “substantive contributions,” he added.
U.S. officials have maintained informal ties over the past 40 years with Taiwan, a friend from the Cold War that they still prize as one in a chain of Asia Pacific allies.
Trump tightened those ties first as president-elect in 2016 by taking a call from Taiwan’s then new president, Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai had already declined to talk with China on Beijing’s precondition that each side sees itself as part of one country. China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan, despite the island’s self-rule of more than 70 years.
The Trump government went on to approve five arms sales, including $8 billion in F-16V fighter jets this month. The U.S. Navy has passed ships through the ocean strait between Taiwan and China routinely since mid-2018. In March the two sides kicked off an annual high-level dialogue. China fumes at many of these turns.
“So far the kind of relationship between Tsai and the United States couldn't be better,” said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. “I think until the last minute the United States government, doesn't matter which sector, will support President Tsai all the way through her reelection.”
Tsai will stand for reelection in January against a candidate advocating closer China-Taiwan ties.
Trump’s government is enmeshed in a more than year-old trade dispute with China, which the U.S. side calls unfair in exports, currency policy and intellectual property. Some analysts in Taiwan warn that Trump may be using Taiwan as a bargaining chip to get more from China on trade.
Taiwan has enough “friends” in American political circles, including in the Democratic Party, to sustain close ties after Trump steps down, Wu said.
Wu, 64, was appointed foreign minister in February 2018. He had previously worked under Taiwan's former president Chen Shui-bian as his China policy architect and head of Taiwan’s informal diplomatic mission to Washington.
Taiwan, an export powerhouse, still wants a bilateral trade deal with the United States, Wu said.
Taiwan and the United State have been “pragmatic” over the past few years by not raising the idea of reestablishing formal diplomatic relations – the top goal for some Taiwanese.
“We hope the U.S. can openly express that Taiwan is a sovereign independent country and even formally recognize Taiwan diplomatically,” said Michael Tsai, chairman of the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies in Taiwan.