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Skepticism grows in Taiwan over whether Washington is a reliable security partner

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For some time now, Taiwan has seen the U.S. as providing its most important security buffer against China. But congressional proposals to direct billions of dollars to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan are stalled. And while Taiwanese officials prize close relations with the U.S., skepticism about whether Washington is a reliable security partner is taking root. NPR's Emily Feng tells us more about this from Taipei.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Liang Gouyin grew up haunted by the stories of the Dachen Islands, just off China's east coast, where about a third of the 15,000 residents, including Liang's parents, were soldiers fighting the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950s.

LIANG GOUYIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Liang says she remembered constant artillery fire and bomb shelters. It was the Cold War. Dachen, and by default, Taiwan, was seen by the U.S. as an important post for containing communist China. But in 1955, the Dachen effort was pulled.

LIANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And 3-year-old Liang boarded an aircraft carrier belonging to the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet and sailed to Taiwan. This massive evacuation, transplanting an entire community of Allied soldiers and fishermen to Taiwan, represented the close involvement the U.S. has had in the Asian island. It was a Cold War buffer against China, so much so that for much of the 20th century, the U.S. dictated a lot of Taiwan's security policy, including actively stopping Taiwan's then-ruler Chiang Kai-shek from attempting to invade China. Here's Su Shengxiong, a history researcher at Taipei's Academia Sinica research institute.

SU SHENGXIONG: (Through interpreter) In the 1950s, there were lots of American military personnel living in Taiwan. Every time they learned Chiang Kai-shek had plans to invade China, they'd send advisers to talk him out of it or cut off his access to American equipment.

FENG: When the U.S. broke official ties with Taiwan in 1979, choosing to recognize China as a country instead, Taiwan saw it as a great betrayal. But a close relationship still continues, and American legislation requires the U.S. to support Taiwan's self-defense. Taiwan, for its part, also heavily courts U.S. politicians. Former Taiwanese President Ma Yingjeou oversaw the opening of closer economic and cultural ties between mainland China and Taiwan.

MA YINGJEOU: The mainland, of course, doesn't want us to have too much to do with the United States.

FENG: And yet, even he still advocates for strong U.S. ties as a way to maintain Taiwan sovereignty.

MA: The U.S. is very important to us, and they basically support our claim and our position. So we'll continue to have close relations with the U.S.

FENG: But Taiwan's political parties, including that of Ma's, privately are hedging their bets. They've seen the way the U.S. waffles in its support of Ukraine and how it suddenly withdrew from Afghanistan. Now a $95 billion foreign aid bill that includes some funding for Taiwan is stalled. So many on this island are wondering, just how trustworthy is the U.S.? During campaigning for Taiwan's last presidential elections this past January, both major parties stressed Taiwan should only rely on itself for security matters. And even independent voters like 29-year-old Kevin Ko told NPR Taiwan should not put all of its eggs in the U.S. basket because China is getting stronger.

KEVIN KO: I'm not saying top one, but at least top two country in the world. worldwide. That's true. You have to deal with it. You have to deal with it.

FENG: American officials have brushed off the skepticism. Here's Laura Rosenberger, chair of the U.S.'s de facto embassy in Taiwan, at a press conference in January after Taiwan's elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURA ROSENBERGER: We know that Taiwan is a robust democracy that enjoys freedom of expression, and that debate in a free and open society is a natural thing.

FENG: But polling in Taiwan shows wariness with the U.S. is growing. Hsin-Hsin Pan is a sociology professor at Taiwan's Soochow University who started an annual poll on Taiwanese views about the U.S. And what she found is panic.

HSIN-HSIN PAN: Panic about the U.S., U.S. leadership in East Asia and U.S. security commitment to Taiwan - in 2021, we were surprised that only 45% of the population here trust the United States.

FENG: Trust that the U.S. will live up to its security assistance commitments to Taiwan, Pan says. When she polled people last year, she found confidence in the U.S. was even lower.

PAN: Down to 33%, only one-third of the population.

FENG: And now the U.S. is electing a new president in November. People in Taiwan are watching closely. They don't vote in the U.S., but what the U.S. does impacts them greatly.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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