On March 1, the Senate passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which the House of Representatives had previously approved in January. That measure 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.”
The measure does not compel the executive branch to change policy, but it clearly constitutes a congressional desire for closer U.S. ties, especially defense ties, with the Taiwan government. Since the Senate passed the legislation with no dissenting votes, it reinforced the intensity of the congressional position. At the very least, the Taiwan Travel Act creates the foundation for a much more substantive bilateral relationship and prods the Trump administration to move in that direction.
China’s government clearly seems worried that a significant U.S. policy shift may be on the horizon. Beijing strongly protested passage of the TTA. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was “extremely dissatisfied” with the legislation, which “seriously contravenes” the understanding between the two countries.
Although it was a matter of informal restraint rather than 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 policymakers, usually economic, to interact with their Taiwanese counterparts. Prominent officials such as the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense, were always careful not to provoke China by meeting with leaders from Taiwan.
It is not certain such caution will dissipate now, but the likelihood certainly exists. President Trump could have allowed the measure to become law without his signature. Instead, he signed the bill, signaling his approval of the substance—a step that heightens Beijing’s dissatisfaction.
Chinese leaders already had reason to be uneasy about Trump’s stance on the Taiwan issue. The much‐discussed December 2016 telephone conversation between then‐President‐elect Trump and Taiwanese president Tsai Ing‐wen created a major stir. No previous president‐elect since the 1979 recognition of the PRC as China’s rightful government had ever interacted with a Taiwanese leader. PRC officials worried that the incoming administration might abandon the “one‐China” policy that served as the basis of U.S.-China relations. Trump alleviated those concerns when he assured President Xi Jinping in February 2017 that Washington remained fully committed to the one‐China policy. Passage of the Taiwan Travel Act almost certainly revives China’s wariness.
Some proponents of the Taiwan Travel Act have favored closer bilateral ties, especially security cooperation, with the island for years. They argue that Washington needed to maximize its support for a vibrant fellow democracy. Some, such as former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, even urged Washington to consider extending formal diplomatic recognition to Taipei and redeploying U.S. troops currently stationed on Okinawa to Taiwan.
However, those avid supporters were never numerous or influential enough to push through a measure like the Taiwan Travel Act. Beijing’s actions toward Taiwan over the past year or so appear to be the catalyst that greatly expanded the roster of congressional members willing to take a stance signaling greater U.S. backing for the beleaguered island.