U.S. Tries to Bolster Taiwan’s Status, Short of Recognizing Sovereignty

WASHINGTON — A visit to Taiwan by an American cabinet secretary. A sale of advanced torpedoes. Talk of starting negotiations over a potential trade agreement.

The Trump administration has taken action in recent weeks to strengthen United States relations with the democratic island of Taiwan and bolster its international standing. The efforts are aimed at highlighting a thriving democracy in Asia and countering China’s attempts to weaken the global diplomatic status of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

That feeds into a bigger campaign by national security officials: to set the United States on a long-term course of competition and confrontation with China that any American president, Democratic or Republican, will find difficult to veer away from in the future.

“Taiwan is the most important thing from a military and credibility point of view,” said Elbridge A. Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. Mr. Colby wrote the Trump administration’s national defense strategy, which emphasizes competition with China and Russia.

Taiwan has been a fraught issue between Washington and Beijing for seven decades, and it is re-emerging as a potential focal point of tensions, as United States national security officials press their campaign against China. The officials also see bolstering Taiwan in a more urgent light given the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong by Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

President Trump himself admires Mr. Xi and is “particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan,” once comparing it to the tip of a Sharpie marker and China to the Resolute desk, John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, wrote in his new book. And the president is willing to sacrifice U.S. support for the democratic government for trade relations with China, he added. But campaign strategists have told Mr. Trump that he needs to appear tough on China for re-election purposes, giving pro-Taiwan U.S. officials an opening.

President Richard M. Nixon began a process of diplomatic opening in 1971 with Communist-ruled China to get Mao Zedong’s help in countering the Soviet Union. The United States established diplomatic ties with China in 1979 and broke off formal relations with Taiwan, which had been a sanctuary for the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, since their loss in the Chinese civil war 30 years earlier. Every U.S. administration has tried to maintain an ambiguous position on Taiwan based on the “One China” policy.

The ambiguity has helped maintain stability across the Taiwan Strait, one of the most militarized areas in the world. But as China has grown stronger and more assertive, and as Mr. Trump has begun dismantling international commitments under his “America First” foreign policy, some U.S. officials and Washington policy experts say the United States’s traditional approach to Taiwan helps hard-liners in Beijing and increases China’s threat to the island’s 24 million people.

Those officials, as well as Republican and Democratic lawmakers, aim to do as much as possible to show explicit U.S. support for Taiwan. They want to send military signals to China and to make relations with Taiwan as close to nation-to-nation as possible, short of recognizing sovereignty. Though Mr. Bolton openly advocates full diplomatic relations, many U.S. officials, including even some China hawks, have been more reluctant, fearful that such a move would mean a complete break with Beijing.

In March, officials persuaded Mr. Trump to sign the bipartisan Taipei Act passed by Congress, which commits Washington to trying to help Taiwan improve its international standing and oppose what the bill’s Senate sponsors called China’s “bullying tactics.”

The White House has publicly criticized as “Orwellian nonsense” China’s efforts to force American companies, including airlines and hotels, to use language indicating Taiwan is part of China. Some officials have discussed bringing Mandarin Chinese-language teachers from Taiwan to the United States as they try to get American schools to break ties with the Beijing-run Confucius Institutes.

In May, American officials led a failed effort at an assembly of the World Health Organization to get Taiwan observer status, over China’s objections.

But last week, Washington and Taipei orchestrated a diplomatic show of force. Alex M. Azar II, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, met on Aug. 10 with Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, in Taipei, in what was the highest-level visit by an American official to the island since 1979. Two days later, Ms. Tsai gave a video talk hosted by two policy research groups in Washington in which she stressed the need to strengthen military ties and establish a free-trade agreement.

“Foremost amongst my priorities is to establish a constructive security relationship built on the clear understanding of our shared interests in the region,”…

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