There is much excitement within Washington’s Asia policy world regarding the June 13 confirmation by the US Senate of David R. Stillwell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. The role has been without a confirmed political appointee for the entirety of the Trump administration. Finally, there is an official at the Department of State, chosen by the president—and hopefully trusted by him—to manage US diplomatic efforts in the Indo-Pacific region.
A retired Air Force brigadier general, Stillwell has served tours of duty in South Korea, Japan, and China, was Asia advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff prior to his retirement, and most recently was the director of the China Strategic Focus Group at Indo-Pacific Command (formerly Pacific Command) in Hawaii. He reportedly does not have much direct experience with Taiwan, but his appointment and confirmation could be consequential for the island. What are some of the potential implications for Taiwan as Stillwell takes the reigns at the Bureau for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP)?
First, Stillwell’s confirmation finally completes the senior-level Asia policy team within the Trump administration. His counterparts at the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Security Council (NSC)—Randy Schriver and Matt Pottinger, respectively—are undoubtedly happy to have a political appointee partner at the State Department. Taken together, this group has years of experience living and working in Asia and in-depth knowledge of US alliances. Each of the three can boast of a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges that China poses. Thanks to his previous government service record and his many years in the think tank realm, Schriver’s belief in the importance of the US-Taiwan relationship is well known, but Pottinger and Stillwell are thought to have similar outlooks.
Stillwell’s completion of the Asia policy team is important for a couple of reasons. It will make for more effective upward pressure from these three leaders as they seek buy-in and support for new initiatives from the Trump cabinet’s senior ranks. A confirmed EAP assistant secretary, moreover, will be able to better mobilize the State Department bureaucracy to implement administration policy, thus ensuring that DOD and State are both pushing in the same direction. If the United States is to successfully implement its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP), it must be a whole-of-government approach and will have to utilize all pillars of American power. A confirmed assistant secretary puts Washington on track to doing so.
Second, a confirmed political appointee, given his or her backing by the president, can better enact significant changes to business-as-usual practices within EAP. This may have particular relevance to Taiwan, especially given legislation, introduced in March, that I wrote about in a previous GTB issue:
The Taiwan Assurance Act requires that the president submits to the House and Senate foreign affairs committees a report on the results of a State Department review of its Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan and on implementation of the Taiwan Travel Act. The Act encourages, but does not mandate, that the State Department guidelines “be crafted with the intent to deepen and expand United States-Taiwan relations…”
The Taiwan Assurance Act has not been moved out of committee, but its introduction signaled congressional interest in addressing a problem that has long vexed US-Taiwan relations and those who support a closer relationship. The State Department guidelines referenced in the legislation impede regular, sustained, and substantive bilateral diplomacy. They inhibit engagement at the assistant secretary level and below, and they all but rule it out at higher levels, especially in the national security space. Presumably after consulting with one another, the secretary of state, the national security advisory, and, of course, the president, can choose to disregard the guidelines when they see fit, but exceptions have been infrequent.
In today’s Washington, however, a change to the status quo as Beijing defines it is a real possibility. Congressional leaders from both parties have indicated support for such change. National Security Advisor John Bolton, during his time as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, publicly called for easing limitations on meetings between American and Taiwan officials—and recently met with the secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council. Now, there is someone in place at the State Department that can get it done—if he chooses to make revising the guidelines a priority.
What might revised guidelines look like? Changes to restrictions on Taiwan diplomats’ access to the State Department would be low hanging, but not unimportant, fruit. It should not be inconvenient for diplomats to engage in diplomacy. At present, it is.
A more substantial revision would be to allow for visits by Taiwan’s foreign and defense ministers to visit Washington and meet with senior administration officials. DOD’s recent Indo-Pacific Strategy Report describes China as undermining “the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order” and as seeking “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately global preeminence in the long-term.” The report highlighted the narrower threat to Taiwan as well.
Taiwan is undoubtedly an important partner in countering these challenges, and would be even if its only contribution to the effort were ensuring its own defense (its contribution, in fact, is not nearly so limited). Working level diplomatic engagement is crucial, but given the nature of the challenge described, insufficient. If top leadership in both Taipei and Washington are not working together to set priorities and coordinate approaches, Taiwan and the United States are far less likely to achieve success in countering the China challenge.
Third, the confirmation of an EAS head that is, one hopes, inclined to help Taiwan enhance its self-defense capability, along with the recent confirmation of a new assistant secretary for political-military affairs, may create an environment at the State Department that is more conducive to speedier arms sales. The Trump administration does seem to have returned to a more regular sales process, which is positive. Even so, that does not necessarily prevent sales from being held hostage to the US-China diplomatic calendar. The more advocates within the administration for arms sales, the better.
Fourth, Assistant Secretary Stillwell will have a role to play if the Trump administration decides to conduct—or is instructed by Congress to conduct—a new Taiwan Policy Review (TPR). During the first and only TPR, conducted in 1994, the Clinton administration, as then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Winston Lord put it, “has carefully examined every facet of our unofficial ties with a view to correcting their anomalies and strengthening their sinews.” There is interest on Capitol Hill in mandating a new TPR, and although that interest is driven by a desire to enhance US-Taiwan relations, there can be a risk in launching such a process, as outcomes cannot be known in advance. Those risks are significantly reduced with a political appointee running EAS, particularly one committed to the FOIP and the Trump administration’s more forward-leaning approach to Taiwan. It was Winston Lord that testified to Congress on the 1994 TPR’s results, so it stands to reason that David Stillwell would likewise be front and center in a 21st century iteration.
Finally, recent years have seen a succession of American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) directors that have worked to advance the US-Taiwan relationship in meaningful ways. The ongoing series of Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF) workshops is one concrete example of how they have done so. AIT has partnered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other governments, and organizations within Taiwan to hold training seminars on important topics for civic leaders from around the region. These workshops demonstrate close bilateral cooperation, advance shared regional interests, and deepen Taiwan’s relations with countries across the Indo-Pacific.
One wonders, however, how many AIT initiatives have been blocked by the State Department or simply withered on the vine without a champion in Washington. We do not know yet what Stillwell’s priorities will be vis-à-vis Taiwan, but we do know that the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy will falter if Taiwan does not remain free and open. Perhaps going forward, the default answer from Foggy Bottom will be a “yes.”
The main point: The confirmation of an assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs may bolster Trump administration efforts to pursue a closer, more robust US-Taiwan relationship.