Written by Dean P. Chen.
Image credit: U.S. – China Relationship by John Saeyong Ra/Flickr, license CC0 1.0
On March 26, 2020, as the United States is under enormous pressure coping with the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeping across the globe, President Donald Trump signed into law the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019. Passed unanimously by the two chambers of U.S. Congress — the Senate in October 2019 and House in March 2020 — the act pushes for enhanced American government support for Taiwan’s international participation. It thus requires the State Department to report to Congress on steps taken to strengthen the island democracy’s diplomatic relations with other partners in the Indo-Pacific region. It also stipulates that the United States should also consider “altering economic, security, and diplomatic engagement” with nations that undermine Taiwan’s security and prosperity. These stipulations obviously target Beijing’s aggressive manoeuvres since Taiwan’s presidential election of Tsai Ing in 2016 (and re-elected in a landslide this past January). The act also targets the suppression of Taiwan’s international space while poaching some of Taipei’s remaining diplomatic allies, including the Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
The TAIPEI Act is the latest in a series of pro-Taiwan initiatives rolled out by the Trump administration in less than four years. It’s the second U.S. law endorsed by Trump bearing the name of Taiwan explicitly. The other being the Taiwan Travel Act, which was signed on March 16, 2018, encouraging visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials at all levels.
The Trump administration has undoubtedly voiced a much stronger commitment toward Taiwan than many of its predecessors. While the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations were consistently adhering to the U.S. One-China policy and treating Taiwan in ways that avoided provoking Beijing’s ire, the Trump team would have none of that. Beginning with an unprecedented phone call with President Tsai in December 2016, Trump (in his capacity as the president-elect then) questioned whether his government should remain faithful to the One-China policy if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) persisted in acting uncooperatively on many security and economic issues deemed vital to American interests. This author, in a recent publication, found that Trump’s government is more inclined to eschew its support for the One-China policy than the Obama White House, in favour of cultivating and enlarging the scope and depth of partnership with Taiwan creatively. On top of the Taiwan-friendly legislations, the Trump administration has regularly dispatched U.S. warships to sail through the Taiwan Strait and approved, at a relatively short time span, five arms sales packages (including the most recent F-16V fighter jets at $8 billion). The Trump administration also lashed out at China’s coercive disinformation campaigns to restrict Taiwan’s autonomy and disrupt its democratic process. Top executive branch officials from the State Department and National Security Council have routinely praised Taiwan for its positive role in democratic governance, along with its contributions to regional peace and stability. They commended Taiwan’s measured and effective responses to manage COVID-19 — hence the more compelling reason to strengthen Taiwan’s engagement in the World Health Organisation — as well as its “mask diplomacy” to help America and Europe battle the contagion.
Apparently, U.S. Taiwan Strait policy has gone through a notable transformation. This change not only reflects the heightening structural competitions between America and China but also results from a significant ideational reconstitution. For the first time since the end of Second World War, U.S. foreign policy today hinges on an America first Jacksonianism, which is predicated on commercial mercantilism, unilateralist diplomacy and conservative nationalism. On China, an emerging consensus in the Washington policymaking circles ( for both Republicans and Democrats alike) is that the previous U.S. administrations (from Nixon to Obama) held on to a false assumption or Wilsonian naivete to engage China constructively. They aspired to the latter’s eventual political opening and democratisation, in addition to becoming a responsible stakeholder of the rules-based world order. Instead, the PRC is anything but. Therefore, a recalibration of U.S. China policy, they argued, is long overdue. Last October, Vice President Mike Pence noted that “we must take China as it is, not as we imagine or hope it might be someday.” Since early 2018, the Trump administration has commenced a whole-of-government approach to push back against China in the economic, geostrategic, high-tech and political realms. The two countries have been hitting each other hard with several tranches of tariffs, and a fragile truce was only reached in January. Months ago, their relationship exacerbated when throngs of Hong Kongners took to the streets to protest against the HKSAR government’s increasing propensity to cater to Beijing to narrow further their political freedom, civil liberties, human rights and judiciary independence. Now, some Washington and Beijing officials have switched their contentions to whom to blame for the widespread of Coronavirus. Even Trump, for a brief moment, jumped into the fray dubbing it the “Chinese virus” to counter a PRC foreign ministry spokesman’s conspiracy theory that the disease originated from U.S. military visiting Wuhan last fall. The litany of U.S.-China hostilities seems to continue and escalate unabatedly.
In a similar vein, the original liberal imperative to downplay Taiwan for fear of antagonising China is no longer pragmatic. Bolstering ties with Taiwan has received strong bipartisan backing in the U.S. Congress — currently a rare occurrence in Washington’s highly polarised political environment. Even a mercurial President Trump, who has a penchant for transactional deal-making, has appeared (so far) to de-link Washington’s support for Taiwan from the trade negotiations with Beijing. Though the Taiwan Travel Act and TAIPEI Act both contain a “sense of Congress” languages, which could be interpreted as non-binding, it’s essential to know that their passage suggests a gradual shift in U.S. foreign policy ideas, attitudes, and priorities. Furthermore, when signed by the president, they become the laws of the land, which Congress could enforce through its oversight power. These laws would give many previously unobtrusive and reticent practices towards Taiwan’s greater formality, legitimacy, and visibility. Ultimately, the president may choose not to implement these acts for fear of overly infuriating Beijing. Yet, if the commander-in-chief one day finds it appropriate to fully enforce the Taiwan Travel Act or TAIPEI Act by dispatching, say, the secretary of state or national security adviser to Taipei — or deploying harsh economic sanctions to retaliate against a country that endangers Taiwan’s wellbeing — then he or she, having the legal basis and authority, would be less inhibited from going forward. That enhanced flexibility in itself is quite significant for U.S.-Taiwan relations.
To be sure, international politics is primarily based on realism, so the U.S.-PRC relations could still be altered depending on how the latter exercises its foreign policy and whether the emergence of some imminent global crisis would renew common interests for both. Recall how the tragedy of September 11 tampered down the Bush administration’s initial hawkish tone towards Beijing. Only days after Trump’s attribution of the pathogen to China, he had a call with Xi to explore possible ways of cooperation to combat the Coronavirus. We are, indeed, turning the page to a new chapter on U.S.-Taiwan relations, with highlights never seen before. This trend is likely to persist irrespective of the re-election of the Trump presidency this November. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean the road ahead for Taiwan will be smooth. Leaders in Taipei must carefully and strategically navigate the route ahead in a game of great-power rivalry.
Dean P. Chen is Associate Professor of Political Science, Ramapo College of New Jersey. This article is part of special issue on the U.S.- Taiwan relations.