At the same time, the United States should encourage Taiwan to invest more in its own security. President Ma Ying-jeou has promised Taiwan will spend 3 percent of GDP on defense but has taken no meaningful steps toward that goal -- Taiwan spent only 2.1 percent of its GDP on defense in 2010. Even while Taiwan's neighbors are increasing their defense budgets in the face of a rising China, Taiwan -- to which China's military rise poses the most direct threat -- appears over-reliant on the United States and is under-investing in its defense.
The U.S.-Taiwan trade relationship is similarly unnecessarily complicated. Beef, although it accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. exports to Taiwan, has become a huge political issue in the bilateral relationship. The controversy originated when Taiwan imposed harsh restrictions on the import of U.S. beef after the discovery of a case of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003. While most restrictions have since been lifted, an additive used in U.S. beef remains the subject of bitterness and popular protest in Taiwan. Partly as a result, the United States and Taiwan have not held high-level bilateral trade talks since 2007. The Taiwanese people debate the issue daily; a growing number are in essence calling Americans bullies for blaming them over the impasse. The United States can do more to reassure Taiwan about the quality of its beef by working collaboratively to develop screening and quarantine procedures. This dispute should no longer overshadow what remains an important trading relationship.
Finally, there is work to do on the diplomatic front. The United States does not recognize Taiwan as a formal state, and Taiwan cannot be called an "ally" of the United States except in the sense of a close friend. Taiwanese Air Force pilots may be U.S.-trained to fly U.S.-made F-16s, but the United States remains committed to the One China Policy. The United States has no embassy in Taipei -- though the staff size of its de facto embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan, is roughly equal that of the embassy in Seoul -- and sharply restricts high-level official visits. U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki had to decline an invitation to Taiwan in 2009 because of his cabinet-level status; I couldn't return to Taiwan in an official capacity after being promoted to brigadier general, and only did so this year after retiring from military and government service in 2011. Taiwan's Defense Minister, Kao Hua Chu, has yet to visit the United States after holding the post for two years. The highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in the past decade was Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, who made the trek in late 2011.
The United States' lack of military-to-military and high-level diplomatic contacts with a key regional player -- on whom the Asia-Pacific's stability in no small part depends -- undercuts the purpose of the 2013 Pentagon fiscal priorities announced in January to increase "American commitment" to that that part of the world. The United States should at the very least publicly reexamine this policy in light of its costs. In the short term, the United States should expedite Taiwan's inclusion, currently under review, in the Visa Waiver Program, which allows travelers from 36 countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism without a visa.
The U.S.-Taiwan relationship faces growing risk from complacency on both sides as each increasingly takes the other for granted to focus instead on "getting it right" with mainland China. Now, the United States has a brief window of opportunity to get an important friendship back on track. This fall, the Chinese Communist Party undergoes its first transition of leadership in nearly a decade. I anticipate the newly chosen Politburo to be more inward-looking and risk-averse over the next two years as it moves to consolidate power. The timing coincides with the House of Representatives' expected reexamination of Taiwan policy legislation this spring. The U.S. should use the opportunity to correct emerging problems in its relationship with Taiwan, before things break and costly fixes are needed.