Amid increasingly tense Sino-U.S. ties, John Bolton, a former American ambassador to the U.N. and a top adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, has called for a closer U.S. military relationship with Taiwan to help counter a “belligerent” Beijing.
In a commentary published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal likely to stoke anger in China, Bolton said Washington “could enhance its East Asia military posture by increasing U.S. military sales to Taiwan and by again stationing military personnel and assets there.”
In the commentary, Bolton also noted that the stationing of U.S. military personnel in Taiwan could help alleviate other problems in East Asia, including in Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.
“Washington might also help ease tensions with Tokyo by redeploying at least some U.S. forces from Okinawa, a festering problem in the U.S.-Japan relationship,” he wrote.
Crimes and other incidents involving U.S. service personnel have stoked anger in the island prefecture in recent years.
Bolton said Taiwan’s location, closer to the East Asian mainland and the contested South China Sea than either Okinawa or Guam, would additionally give U.S. forces “greater flexibility for rapid deployment throughout the region should the need arise.”
In recent years, U.S. and Chinese naval vessels have shadowed each other in the South China Sea amid ramped-up assertiveness by Beijing — including the building of military outposts on reclaimed islets in the strategic waterway.
Bolton said that while the U.S. “need not approximate Douglas MacArthur’s image of Taiwan as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier,’ or renegotiate a mutual defense treaty,” the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1979, “is expansive enough to encompass” a limited military relationship, making new legislative authority unnecessary.
That law provides the legal basis for the unofficial relationship with Taipei and enshrines the U.S. commitment to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability. U.S. troops were withdrawn from the country in 1979.
“Guaranteeing freedom of the seas, deterring military adventurism, and preventing unilateral territorial annexations are core American interests in East and Southeast Asia,” Bolton wrote. “Today, as opposed to 1972, a closer military relationship with Taiwan would be a significant step toward achieving these objectives. If China disagrees, by all means let’s talk.”
Legal and security experts say neither U.S. nor international law prevents Trump from stationing U.S. troops and military assets in Taiwan.
“I do think Bolton is right that President Trump has the legal authority under U.S. law to do this, based mostly on his general commander-in-chief powers, but with the added support of the TRA,” Julian Ku, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University in New York, told The Japan Times.
Ku said that while such a move was legally possible, it would be in violation of the spirit, if not the text, of the 1972 Shanghai Communique, which laid the groundwork for establishing diplomatic relations with communist China.
“But those communiques were never understood to be legally binding, and don’t appear to be phrased that way,” Ku added. “Still, this would be akin to breaking a personal promise, and China would feel pretty much the same even if it was legally binding.”
June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor and Asia expert, agreed with that assessment.
“Not even Bolton’s enemies question his legal expertise and, yes, the Taiwan Relations Act, as duly passed legislation, unquestionably outweighs the Shanghai Communique, which carries lesser status as an executive degree,” Dreyer said.
Still, Dreyer said, the Taiwanese government would have to invite the United States to station troops on its soil — a decision that would tacitly affirm that the U.S. regards Taiwan as a sovereign state. What’s more, stationing military personnel on the island would hinge on Taipei agreeing to a move that Beijing would regard as provocative and whether the U.S. would guarantee to back Taiwan’s security if it accepted the troops.
Dreyer noted that it was highly unlikely Bolton would make the comments without Trump’s prior consent. But since Trump hasn’t spoken publicly, he could plausibly deny knowledge of it. Chinese generals, she added, often make incendiary statements, and the Chinese government regularly responds that they speak only for themselves and do not necessarily reflect official policy.
Bolton, who currently serves as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The former U.N. envoy, who had been among the front-runners to be Trump’s pick for secretary of state before losing out to eventual nominee Rex Tillerson, has long been a vocal advocate for Taiwan.
In January last year, he authored a similar commentary calling for the next U.S. leader to “play the Taiwan card” and threaten to restore diplomatic ties with Taipei to halt Beijing’s “march toward hegemony in East Asia.”
Tuesday’s editorial was the latest incident to thrust the Taiwan issue into the spotlight.
Last month, Trump broke with decades of precedent when he accepted a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, becoming the first U.S. president or president-elect to publicly acknowledge speaking with a Taiwanese leader.
Trump has also stoked anger in Beijing by suggesting the so-called one-China policy was up for negotiation.
In an interview Friday, he raised the prospect of using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in Sino-U.S. relations. Asked if he supported the policy, Trump said: “Everything is under negotiation, including ‘one China.’ ”
Washington recognized Beijing diplomatically as the one China in 1979, and has kept only unofficial ties with Taiwan since then — though it has sold arms to Taipei under the Taiwan Relations Act, including some $1.83 billion worth in 2015.
China considers Taiwan a “core interest,” and views the self-ruled island as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force, if necessary. Its Foreign Ministry has also called the one-China policy “nonnegotiable,” but has refrained from taking the harsh line seen in state-run media, which has warned of looming conflict if the Trump team continues to press the issue.
In an editorial Sunday, the China Daily newspaper warned the incoming U.S. leader over pushing too hard on Taiwan.
“If Trump is determined to use this gambit on taking office, a period of fierce, damaging interactions will be unavoidable, as Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves,” the editorial said.
Any move by Trump to use the Taiwan issue would also come as Chinese President Xi Jinping seeks to cement his grip on power ahead of the 19th Communist Party congress this autumn — making compromise from Beijing an exceedingly unlikely scenario, especially on top issues.
“Beijing has for decades insisted that Taiwan is a core interest and, having said so for so long, could ill afford to back down,” said Dreyer. “Trump doesn’t like to back down, either. Bolton may be using this in order to test Beijing — he has no formal position, which would be different from Trump, a scant three days from inauguration, saying it.”