Strengthening ties with Taiwan

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 16th of April, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: a diplomatic milestone.

It was 40 years ago that the United States and Taiwan established diplomatic relations despite China’s ongoing claim to the island nation.

Yesterday, ceremonies to mark the April anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act got underway. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan led the U.S. delegation in Taipei.

EICHER: Ties between the United States and Taiwan have remained strong over the decades. The Trump administration this year plans to strengthen those bonds with formal talks this fall. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu described the talks as a way for the two countries to “grow closer in  their cooperation to protect regional freedom.”

REICHARD: Joining us now to talk about the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is WORLD’s East Asia Correspondent June Cheng.

June, good morning!

JUNE CHENG, REPORTER: Good morning, Mary.

REICHARD: Well, I’d like to start by putting a historical perspective on the upcoming talks. How big a deal is this?

CHENG: I think it’s a big deal. I think it’s very important because it signals to China that the U.S. will stand by Taiwan even as China has become increasingly assertive in its sovereignty over the island. So, we’ve seen this increase in the past three years since President Tsai Ing-wen came into office. China has cut off communication with the Taiwanese government. It has used financial incentives to entice Taiwan’s few diplomatic allies to cut off ties and it has prevented Taiwan from participating in international organizations. It’s even forced multinational companies from listing Taiwan as a country separate from China. And so we’ve seen this with different airlines as well as clothing companies and hotels.

And in January, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech calling for Taiwan to unify with China and noted that no one could stop unification. It also declared that Taiwanese independence was not an option. And it’s also come at a time when the U.S.-China relationship is also very tense as the two countries are engaged in a trade war over forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft.

There’s also U.S. lawmakers who are calling the Chinese government on its human rights abuses, including the suppression of free speech and the detention of more than 1 million Uighurs in reeducation camps.

REICHARD: What is Taiwan hoping to get out of these talks?

CHENG: Even though the United States does not formally recognize Taiwan, it is the island’s most important ally. And in the Taiwan Relations Act, it promised to provide Taiwan with “defense articles should the People’s Republic of China attack or invade Taiwan.” So these talks would show China the strength of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and hopefully deter any unilateral action by China to reunify.

REICHARD: What about the U.S.? What does the Trump administration hope to get out of this push to strengthen ties?

CHENG: So, Taiwan is situated in a very strategic position in the South China Sea. And also Taiwan has a lot of values that align closely with those of the U.S. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy. It has freedom of speech. It has freedom of religion. It has freedom of the press. All at the same time when China is suppressing these things. So, in that way it’s important for the U.S. to strengthen its ties with Taiwan.

REICHARD: And, June, how have tensions among Taiwan, China, and the U.S. escalated recently?

CHENG: So in February, Taiwan asked to buy 66 F 16 V fighter jets from the U.S. And, if approved, this would be the first aircraft sale since 1992. And that would definitely upset China. Taiwan’s ministry of defense said it was a defensive measure as China continues to threaten the island. And then in March a U.S. Navy destroyer and a Coast Guard cutter sailed through the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan. This is considered international waters, but China considers it part of its territory. So, in response, it flew two Chinese jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait for the first time since 1999. Also, the Chinese government is furious after the spokesman of the American Institute in Taiwan, which is the U.S. de facto embassy in Taiwan, admitted that it had active duty military personnel on site since 2005. The AIT—the American Institute in Taiwan—has also built a $250 million complex that will open in May in Taipei.

REICHARD: This diplomatic stalemate between the U.S., Taiwan, and China has dragged on for 40 years. Do you see any major changes in the next decade?

CHENG: I think China is becoming more bold and less concerned about what the international community thinks, so we could see China becoming more assertive on the Taiwan issue. But at the same time, China has a lot of other things going on, especially as its economy is not growing as fast as it used to be and there’s also a lot of issues internally. And, at the same time, Taiwan President Tsai is up for reelection in January and it seems in Taiwan her popularity is waning. And so if she is defeated by the opposition Guómíndǎng party, than it is possible that we’ll see Taiwan grow closer to China and more distant from the U.S.

REICHARD: June Cheng is WORLD’s East Asia correspondent. June, thanks so much.

CHENG: You’re welcome.

(Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Associated Press) Chinese President Xi Jinping

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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