Former Pentagon Official: Taiwan Election Sends ‘Important Messages’ to Region

January 23, 2020 Updated: January 24, 2020
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News Analysis

WASHINGTON—The former top Pentagon policy official for Asia says the recent Taiwan presidential election allowed the “young democracy” to send “important messages” to the region.

Randall Schriver, who was the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs until last month, spoke Jan. 16 at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs on “Beyond the Ballot: Taiwan’s Elections and Their Implications for U.S. Policy.”

On Jan. 11, Taiwan reelected President Tsai Ing-wen, who received 57 percent of the vote; that’s the highest vote share for a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate in a presidential election. Election turnout was 75 percent, the highest for nationwide elections in 12 years.

Tsai, after losing in 2018 local elections in Taiwan, was able to successfully characterize the ongoing protests in Hong Kong as an augur of what could happen to Taiwan if it accepted the “one country, two systems” formula offered by Beijing.

Taiwan’s example stands very much in contrast to the solution that Beijing would have it take, however. As Schriver noted, Taiwan is “a young democracy.”

“Democracy is not an end point, it’s an experiment that sends important messages to the region.”

Chief among those regional targets is the People’s Republic of China.

“The people of China pay attention. Surely, there are people there who ask why they don’t have the same rights. Someday, it might happen, and we hope for it in China.”

They would have been inspired by Taiwan, Schriver added.

Schriver says this election likely will spark no change from China in its “trajectory or tactics toward Taiwan.”

“They don’t show signs of having a broad toolkit or being very nuanced. Stripping diplomatic allies from Taiwan and sailing through the Taiwan Strait” may be the extent of Beijing’s powers of persuasion, he said.

Schriver knows Tsai “pretty well; she’s pragmatic, and talks about a constitutional environment.” Unsurprisingly, “Beijing is not receptive to what she says.”

US, Taiwanese Commitment to Region

On the American side, the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy commits to a “free and open Indo-Pacific region,” also known as FOIP. That’s “not an anti-China policy, and it is not directed at any one country,” Schriver said.

The Defense Department document elaborates on the concept.

“We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains,” it reads.

FOIP is based on enduring, nearly universal principles, Schriver said. Therefore, the United States finds itself in contrast to China in terms of issues of sovereignty, international law, and norms. Taiwan, however, is a partner in these concepts, he said.

“There is a sense of urgency to look after their defense needs,” he said, referring to Taiwan. “We look for Taiwan to preserve their status, and to deal with their de facto independence.”

To that purpose, Schriver points to Adm. Lee His-ming, Taiwan’s chief of the general staff, who in 2017, “quietly proposed a revolutionary new approach to Taiwan’s defense … called the Overall Defense Concept.”

It employs an asymmetric defense strategy that maximizes its defensive advantages, while targeting an invading force when it is at its weakest, Drew Thompson writes in “War on the Rocks.”

The concept “makes a lot of sense,” Schriver said. It incorporates capabilities that would make Taiwan safe from an amphibious attack.

Taiwan is moving in that direction, and the United States is doing things to support that. But, said Schriver, “we need Taiwan to have a sense of urgency and make investments.”

Schriver noted that the United States is “engaged in a step-up effort itself,” referring to planned U.S. Army and Navy enhancements of capability in the Indo-Pacific Command.

“Taiwan is a very, very hard target, and there are 80 miles of water between it and the Chinese mainland,” although there’s still a lot of pessimism about Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.

Partnering, Networking, and Arms Sales

There are other ways in which Taiwan can be a partner, Schriver said.

“Promoting a networked region is an acknowledgement that security challenges in Asia-Pacific are multilateral in nature. In order to effectively deal with them, partners need to be networked.”

He said the United States believes that Taiwan has more they can do in that area.

“The primary driver for PLA modernization remains Taiwan, the primary sense of friction is Taiwan, the most likely area for crisis is Taiwan,” Schriver.

The United States, of course, would like to see the two sides work things out peacefully.

Meanwhile, Schriver noted that “our arms sales have a record of promoting and improving cross-straits relations.”

He cited the Bush administration’s massive arms sales package to Taiwan in April 2001, which was originally for $18 billion. That “was followed by Taiwan and China entering the World Trade Organization.”

“We have seen China change some facts on the ground. They have completed land reclamation and have militarized,” he said, referencing Beijing’s island-grabbing in the South China Sea.

Schriver said that he personally supports seeing the United States ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, it’s unlikely that the Senate would take it up, he added.

The irony is that “China has ratified it and doesn’t honor it, while the United States has signed it, not ratified it, but does honor it,” the former Pentagon official said.

“We want to see Taiwan remain free and open,” Schriver said. “We’re doing FONOPS (freedom of navigation operations) and joint drills, but it has to be a sustained effort because any gaps, and China will fill in the void.”

“We must keep an eye on the South China Sea,” he urged.