Poking the Panda: Hawks Push Stronger U.S. Support for Taiwan

Taiwan’s supporters in Congress and the Trump administration are pushing unprecedented measures to increase Washington’s backing for the island’s de facto independence from China. On March 1, the Senate passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which the House of Representatives had previously approved in January. The TTA states that it should be the policy of the United States to authorize officials at all levels to visit Taiwan to meet with their counterparts and allow high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the United States for meetings with U.S. officials. Notably, the TTA specifically encouraged interaction by “cabinet-level national security officials.”

As I note in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, although the measure does not compel the executive branch to change policy, it clearly underscores the congressional desire for closer U.S. ties, especially defense ties, with Taiwan’s government. Since the Senate passed the legislation with no dissenting votes, it reinforced the intensity of the congressional position. That President Trump signed the legislation instead of letting it go into effect without his signature signaled his agreement with the substance.

Although it was not a legal requirement, Washington’s policy since it switched official diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 has been to authorize only low-level (usually economic) policymakers to interact with their Taiwanese counterparts. Prominent officials such as the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense, refrain from doing so. That situation is now likely to change.

Congressional activists also are pushing a new gesture of support for Taiwan, even though Beijing’s strong protests in response to the TTA have barely begun to subside. Two key Republican senators, John Cornyn (R-TX) and James Inhofe (R-OK), are urging President Trump to approve the sale of F-35 fighters to Taipei. Cornyn is the assistant majority leader and Inhofe is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, so their support for such a sale is not a minor matter.   

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan always are a sensitive issue with the Chinese government. Beijing contends that the communique President Reagan signed in 1982 committed the United States to phase-out all such sales. U.S. leaders respond that the promise was conditional on Beijing’s willingness to rule out the use of force to compel Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland—a renunciation China has never made. A provision in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act authorizes the sale of defensive arms to Taipei, but it is quite a stretch to regard F-35s as a defensive weapon system.

Since President Trump’s election, Beijing’s suspicions have grown that the United States intends to dilute, if not abandon, the “one-China” policy that has governed bilateral relations since the 1970s. The concerns soared with the much-discussed December 2016 telephone conversation between President-elect Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. No previous president-elect since Washington’s recognition of the PRC as China’s rightful government had ever interacted with a Taiwanese leader. Trump alleviated Beijing’s concerns when he assured President Xi Jinping in February 2017 that Washington remained fully committed to the one-China policy, but passage of the Taiwan Travel Act and the new congressional push for F-35 sales undoubtedly revive China’s worries.  

Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as his new national security advisor also likely elevates Beijing’s apprehension. Bolton is a longtime, passionate supporter of an independent Taiwan. Not only did he previously urge the United States to establish diplomatic relations with Taipei, he even suggested redeploying U.S. troops currently stationed on Okinawa to Taiwan to demonstrate the firmness of Washington’s commitment to the island’s security.

It is hard not to empathize with the aspirations of a vibrant, capitalist democracy like Taiwan. In a just world, the Taiwanese would have every right to determine their own political destiny and not be pressured into reunifying with the mainland—especially as long as the PRC remains a repressive, one-party state. But we do not live in a just world, and China regards reunification as a vital interest for which it is prepared to go to war.

The Taiwan Travel Act and the proposed F-35 sale signify an emphatic pro-Taiwan tilt and a serious policy change. Even if the Trump administration does not fully implement the TTA and approve the arms sale, a future administration now has congressional authorization and encouragement to do so. Some of the statements already coming from China’s state-controlled media are worrisome. The semi-official Global Times suggested that Beijing’s response to the latest provocations might need to be “military” in nature. That is not a minor concern. The Taiwan Relations Act states that Washington would regard any Chinese military coercion of Taiwan as a grave breach of the peace in East Asia. There is little doubt that America would be entangled in such a conflict.

U.S. leaders are playing a very dangerous game when they flirt with measures that undermine the one-China policy. Greater caution is imperative.