US Congress passes Act in Support of Taiwan’s Diplomatic Alliances

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

Image credit: US Capitol by John Williams/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Congress Pressures US Government to Support Taiwan’s International space

On March 4th, 2020, the US House of Representatives passed the TAIPEI Act with unanimous consent. TAIPEI, in this case, stands for “Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative” – a smart acronym for legislation designed to support more international space for Taiwan around the world.

The US Senate had passed a similar Bill at the end of October 2019, and the House actually took up the Senate version of the Bill. Still, some changes were made in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Ways and Means Committee, so to iron out the differences, the legislation needs to go back to the Senate for reconciliation. Nevertheless, the process should not take long, so we can expect a White House signature in the very near future.

The legislation is actually the third in a series urging the US Administration to strengthen its relations with Taiwan, along with supporting Taiwan’s defence and security and enhance its support for Taiwan international space. In February 2018, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which became law in March 2018 (PL 115-135), while in December 2018, it passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative (ARIA), which contained commitments on arms sales and defence capabilities and became law on December 31st 2018 (PL 115-409).

In Response to the PRC Poaching Taiwan’s Allies

In Sec. 2, the “Findings” section of the Bill, the legislation elaborates on how — since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 — the PRC has pressured a number of countries to sever relations with Taiwan, and is also adding pressure on the remaining fifteen nations, primarily in the Pacific, the Caribbean and Central America to switch their diplomatic ties to the PRC. It actually quotes President Tsai’s statement that this is “part of a series of diplomatic and military acts of coercion” by China.

Interestingly, in its “Findings” section — tantalizingly titled “Diplomatic relations with Taiwan” — the legislation also describes Taiwan as “… a free, democratic, and prosperous nation of 23,000,000 people and an important contributor to peace and stability around the world.” This factual, and forward-looking, approach contrasts with the peculiar past hesitancy by some US government officials to refer to Taiwan as “a country.” In fact, under the definition of international law — the 1933 Montevideo Convention — Taiwan is clearly a nation-state, and it would thus be helpful if the US formally updates its phraseology on this specific point.

Enhancing US-Taiwan Trade Relations: A Bilateral Trade Agreement?

Sec. 3, the “Sense of Congress” part of the Bill, focuses on US’ trade and economic relations with Taiwan, lauding the mutual benefit of existing close trade relations, and urges the US Trade Representative to consult with Congress on “opportunities for further strengthening bilateral trade and economic relations between the United States and Taiwan. The government of President Tsai Ing-wen has expressed interest in starting negotiations on a Bilateral Trade Agreement, but the US side has not yet moved forward on that point, presumably because the USTR office was still swamped by other trade negotiations.

Taiwan’s Membership in International Organisations

Section 4, the first operative part of the legislation, is related to Taiwan’s participation in international organisations, and urges the US government to advocate — as appropriate — “for Taiwan’s membership or observer status in all organisations described in paragraph (1)”. The positive here is that it urges the Administration to “instruct, as appropriate, representatives of the United States Government in all organisations described in paragraph (1) to use the voice, vote, and influence of the United States to advocate for Taiwan’s membership or observer status in such organisations.”

A significant weak point in this section is that in paragraph (1), it still makes a distinction between  (A) ..Taiwan’s membership in all international organisations in which statehood is not a requirement …; and (B) … Taiwan to be granted observer status in other appropriate international organisations. This peculiar phraseology goes back to President Bill Clinton’s “Three Noes” of June 1998, when during his visit to Beijing and Shanghai  — pressured by the Chinese — President Clinton succumbed and inter alia pronounced “No support for Taiwan’s membership in international organisations that require statehood.”

Congress was furious and passed legislation condemning President Clinton’s move. The House passed H.Con.Res.301 on July 20th, 1998 (by 390-1), and the Senate passed S.Con.Res.107 on July 10th, 1998 (by 92-0). These two resolutions reiterated that the future of Taiwan should be determined by peaceful means, and incorporated clauses on the principle of Taiwanese self-determination, and also the right of Taiwan to join international organisations. However, the new language stuck, and regrettably became part and parcel of the standard phraseology of US’ policy towards Taiwan.

The problem with this language was that from 1972 to 1998 it was NOT part of US policy. Neither the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, nor even the Three Communiques — which presumably constituted the basis for US relations with China and Taiwan — contained any language in that direction. It was an unfortunate add-on to US policy by Mr Clinton, which has now hindered and inhibited US policy towards Taiwan and its international space for more than 20 years. 2020 would be an opportune moment to say farewell: we need to emphasise that as an entirely free and democratic country, Taiwan has the right to be a full and equal member in the international community.

Incentives and Disincentives

Sec. 5, the second operative part of the legislation, focuses on the strengthening of ties with Taiwan by other nations. It says that the US Government should “… support Taiwan in strengthening its official diplomatic relationships as well as other partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.” It specifically prescribes incentives “… economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan”, and it prescribes appropriate measures/disincentives “… altering its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that take serious or significant actions to undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan.”

The legislation also requires the Secretary of State to report — not later than one year after the date of enactment, and annually thereafter for five years — to Congress on the steps taken under this legislation.

A Step in the Right Direction

The legislation comes at a good moment: under Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, the US State Department had, over the past year already, become more outspoken and assertive in response to the PRC’s provocative efforts to change the status quo and push Taiwan into a corner.

In the Summer of 2018, when El Salvador suddenly broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan, there was already significant pushback from the United States. The US Department of State stated on August 20th 2018, it was “…deeply disappointed by this decision,” and added that it was “… reviewing our relationship with El Salvador following this decision,” while the White House on August 23rd 2018, made a powerful statement, saying “The United States will continue to oppose China’s destabilisation of the cross-Strait relationship and political interference in the Western Hemisphere.”

When in September 2019, both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati decided in quick succession to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and establish ties with Beijing, it was another signal to the US government that something needed to be done quickly to preserve Taiwan’s international space. On September 17th, 2019, one day after the break, US Vice President Mike Pence cancelled a meeting with Solomon Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare over this issue, while the State Department strongly condemned this move.

Since then, the US has been moving towards an “all-of-government” approach to support Taiwan in international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, ICAO and Interpol, and to maintain its space terms of in bilateral ties. The new legislation is a major expression of support from Congress in the right direction. It should help build a coalition internationally in support of Taiwan’s quest to find a full and equal place within the family of nations.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communiqué. He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and Current Issues in East Asia at George Washington University.

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