Beijing continues to intensify its diplomatic campaign to isolate Taiwan internationally, and as I describe in a recent article in China-U.S. Focus, that bullying strategy threatens to trigger dangerous tensions between China and the United States. Chinese leaders were shocked and angered when Taiwanese voters endorsed Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the 2016 elections. The communist regime soon moved to adopt an aggressive strategy of diplomatic strangulation. During her presidency, Beijing has induced five of the 22 countries (mostly small, poor nations in Africa and Latin America) that had still recognized Taipei when she took office to switch ties to Beijing. The latest defector is El Salvador.
Although the Chinese strategy appears to be paying off in the narrow sense of achieving its primary objective, it may ultimately come at an unacceptably high price. The campaign is producing the opposite reaction in Taiwan of what Beijing seeks. Tsai and her government have adopted a stance of outright defiance, making it clear that Taipei will not be bullied into taking steps toward reunification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
More ominously, American supporters of Taiwan are pushing back firmly, and they are moving to increase Washington’s support of the island’s de facto independence. The State Department immediately issued a statement that Washington was “deeply disappointed” by El Salvador’s decision—even though the United States itself does not maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Taipei’s friends in Congress ratcheted-up their support for the beleaguered democratic island. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia subcommittee, indicated his intention to propose a measure pressuring countries to stick with Taipei. Among other things, his legislation planned to authorize the State Department to downgrade relations or alter foreign assistance programs to discourage countries from making any decisions deemed adverse to Taiwan. “The Taipei Act of 2018 would give greater tools and directions to the State Department in making sure we are as strong a voice as possible for Taiwan,” Gardner told Reuters. A little more than a week later, he and a group of bipartisan co-sponsors, including Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ed Markey (D-MA) carried through on that pledge and introduced the legislation.
Their initiative is just the latest indication that American backers of Taiwan are becoming more vocal and proactive in pushing U.S. measures to counter the PRC’s hardline policies. A major step occurred in March 2018 when President Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which encouraged “officials at all levels of the United States Government” to visit and meet with their Taiwan counterparts and to “allow high-level officials of Taiwan” to enter the United States and to meet with their U.S. counterparts. That legislation, which passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly, ended Washington’s practice adopted when the United States recognized the PRC in 1979 of authorizing meetings only with relatively low-level Taiwanese officials. It was especially noticeable that the new law specifically promoted interaction by “cabinet-level national security officials.”
In early July, the Pentagon sent two U.S. warships through the Taiwan Strait, the first such passage in more than a year, in a display of support for Taipei. That move occurred on the heels of a State Department request that the Defense Department send a small contingent of Marines to guard the American Institute in Taiwan (Washington’s de facto embassy in Taipei). The United States also invited two senior Taiwanese military officials to participate in a May ceremony at the U.S. Pacific Command.
Any one of these episodes might not be all that significant, but taken together they confirm that Washington’s backing for Taiwan is escalating. Beijing can blame itself for much of that development. The PRC’s strategy of diplomatic strangulation is backfiring, and the surge of Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait is making matters even worse.
Beijing would be wise to dial back its confrontational policies toward Taiwan. However, Taiwan’s supporters in Congress, the media, and the Trump administration need to appreciate just how sensitive the Taiwan issue is to PRC leaders and the Chinese people. Excessive, ostentatious U.S. diplomatic support for Taiwan could bring the PRC and the United States closer to a dangerous confrontation. Both sides need to exercise much greater caution and restraint than they are showing now.