The US Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018: Security Implications and Prospects
I. News Focus
The United States (US) president Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 (ARIA) into law (Public Law No.: 115-409) on December 31, 2018. The objective of ARIA is to require the Trump administration “to develop a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled US policy for the Indo-Pacific region.” ARIA complements the more general US National Security Strategy released by the White House in late 2017 and the National Defense Strategy released by the Pentagon in early 2018. The primary motivator behind the act is the challenge perceived in the US Congress – by both Republicans and Democrats – of dealing with the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Trump’s signing of the act also immediately preceded the 2019 New Year statements of the PRC president Xi Jinping and Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen on cross-strait relations, and arguably affected how these two leaders presented their messages.
II. Security Implications
1. ARIA demonstrates a long-term strategy of a more engaged US in Asia
As a long-term strategy, ARIA authorizes USD 1.5 billion annually for five years to enhance US presence in the Indo-Pacific. ARIA also identifies three major sources of challenges – PRC, North Korea, and terrorist groups, and stipulates respective counter-measures: enforcing US freedom of navigation and overflight rights in the Indo-Pacific, which is mainly to counter PRC’s “illegal” construction and militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea, establishing a policy goal to peacefully denuclearize North Korea through the campaign of maximum pressure and engagement, and upholding US commitment in combating terrorism in Southeast Asia.
ARIA moreover reaffirms US security commitments to allies in the Indo-Pacific, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and builds security partnerships with nations in Southeast Asia; ARIA at the same time enhances the US diplomatic, economic, and security relationship with India. Many of the US partner countries mentioned in ARIA in fact overlap with the countries targeted in Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. As a result, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy should try to align with ARIA as much as possible.
Last but not least, ARIA promotes robust cybersecurity cooperation with allies in the Indo-Pacific and sets US policy to pursue effective arms control and nuclear non-proliferation policies in the Indo-Pacific.
2. Taiwan-related provisions show US security commitments to Taiwan
ARIA reiterates the US policy “to faithfully enforce all existing United States Government commitments to Taiwan, consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (Public Law No.: 96-8), the 3 joint communiques, and the Six Assurances agreed to by President Ronald Reagan in July 1982.” ARIA also requires the US president to “encourage the travel of high-level United States officials to Taiwan, in accordance with the Taiwan Travel Act (Public Law 115-135).”
Most importantly, ARIA calls for the US president to “conduct regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan that are tailored to meet the existing and likely future threats from the People’s Republic of China, including supporting the efforts of Taiwan to develop and integrate asymmetric capabilities, as appropriate, including mobile, survivable, and cost-effective capabilities, into military forces.” Compared to the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (Public Law No: 115-232) signed on August 13, 2018, which only asked for improvement in the “predictability of arms sales to Taiwan by ensuring timely review of and response to requests of Taiwan for defense articles and defense services,” ARIA is a clear step up. ARIA also tailor-makes a defense policy for Taiwan of asymmetric capabilities, such as enhancing underwater and air-defense capabilities. Presently, Taiwan is actively building capacity for making its own submarines while positioning many kinds of anti-ballistic missiles. ARIA as a law implies that the US could directly sell Taiwan submarines or the anti-ballistic Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, to rapidly raise Taiwan’s asymmetric capabilities, with congressional approval.
III. Trend Analysis
1. The US is asserting a long-term strategy in Asia and committed to safeguarding Taiwan with congressional oversight
Through ARIA, the US is asserting a long-term strategy in Asia with congressional oversight. Even if Trump is not reelected in 2020, the US interests in Asia come from bipartisan support in the Congress. ARIA will play an important, if not decisive, role in shaping the US national security policy toward the Indo-Pacific region because only the Congress can appropriate funding, and Trump and the Executive will be required to implement the law. In every section of ARIA, the Congress substantiates strategies with corresponding appropriation requirements.
In general, a Republican president would be more committed to the ARIA provisions regarding Taiwan. But if a Democrat president is elected in 2020, the Congress can always use ARIA to provide a check on the president, because ARIA has become a law.
2. Countries not needing the US security shield may be ambivalent about offending the PRC
As Taiwan and Japan require the US security shield, they will show obvious US leanings. In contrast, for those countries that do not require the US security commitment, and/or those maintain close economic ties with the PRC, they may not consider the PRC as a threat and regard issues from the same perspective as the US.
Given that Trump’s top priority is the US, and that in the next US presidential election in 2020 it is not guaranteed that Trump will be re-elected, countries in the region may worry that their interests could be compromised and will have to pay the price of siding completely with the US. On the other hand, the PRC’s allies are not likely to go openly against the US. As a result, many countries may adopt an ambiguous strategy.
 ARIA was initiated by a series of the US congressional hearings held by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) in 2017-18, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cyber Security. ARIA was first introduced into the Senate on April 24, 2018 and passed by the Senate on December 4, 2018. It was approved in the House by a voice vote on December 12, 2018, after amendment. The Senate approved the amendment on December 19. S.2736 - Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018, 115th Congress (2017-2018), Bill History in the Congressional Record, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/2736/history
 S.2736 - Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018, 115th Congress (2017-2018), Text, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/2736/text
 H.R.5515 - John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, 115th Congress (2017-2018), Text, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5515/text#toc-H33209C62E99F49A69B202BBB9E2A60C7