The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act – A Strategic Vision for the Indo-Pacific
On the last day of 2018, the President signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) into law. Among the final pieces of legislation of the year, it is also one of the most important. ARIA was advanced “to develop a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United States policy for the Indo-Pacific region.” The Act contains provisions to bolster the ability of partner nations in the region to resist coercion, and ARIA also includes funding to promote regional democracy, civil society, rule of law and human rights. The Indo-Pacific has been surging in prominence on the global stage for more than a decade, and ARIA provides a comprehensive framework for the United States to engage constructively with the region.
Section 209 of ARIA details America’s commitment to Taiwan explicitly stating that support of the U.S.-Taiwan economic, political and security relationship is official United States policy. ARIA calls on the President to encourage visits of high-level American representatives to Taiwan consistent with the passage of last year’s Taiwan Travel Act (read more about the Taiwan Travel Act here), and most importantly, seeks “to counter efforts to change the status quo and to support peaceful resolution acceptable to both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”
As if to amplify Section 209 of ARIA, during her New Year’s address, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen invoked “four musts” for China. She called on China to acknowledge Taiwan’s existence as reality; to respect the commitment of Taiwan’s citizens to freedom and democracy; to approach cross-strait differences peacefully and to restrict negotiations to governments and government-authorized organizations. She observed that “this is a new year … a year to protect our democracy.” While local elections during the last months of 2018 dealt a blow to President Tsai’s party, the people of Taiwan still support her firm cross-strait engagement. Only three percent of the island’s inhabitants favor near term unification. As Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen declared earlier this year, “I call on China to bravely take steps toward democracy, so they can truly understand the people of Taiwan.”
People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping’s reaction to ARIA and President Tsai’s speech was swift and predictable. Xi reiterated China’s contention that Taiwan is a renegade republic and would ultimately be “reunited” with the PRC. Promises were extended that China would observe a “one country two systems” approach toward Taiwan – a model similar to the one the PRC enjoys with Hong Kong. However, if Hong Kong’s experience is any indication, Taiwan’s skepticism is warranted. Chinese rule has resulted in a steady deterioration in freedom of speech and of the press as well as PRC interference in Hong Kong’s governmental process. The British Foreign Ministry was alarmed enough by conditions there that they issued a report citing “growing concerns” over rights and freedoms in the former colony. They noted that some of China’s practices violate the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which calls for, among other things, protections for freedom of speech and expression as well as academic freedom. For Taiwan, which was ranked first in Asia for press freedoms for the sixth year in a row in the World Press Freedom Index, media restrictions like Hong Kong’s would be unfortunate.
Further eroding Taiwan’s confidence in China’s sincerity are the PRC’s stepped up cross-Strait military maneuvers as well as Chinese efforts to undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty and diplomatic position with nations around the world. One by one, China is applying economic pressure to countries that have recognized Taiwan to compel them to shift allegiance to China instead.
ARIA outlines a national strategy for one of the fastest growing and most consequential regions in the world and includes the promotion of democracy in its vision as an acknowledgment that democratic countries that adhere to principles of rule of law make the best strategic and economic partners. Its enactment is a hopeful coda to a year marked by increasing uncertainty and disorder internationally.