By Tenzin Topden
U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday signed the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) into law, after both chambers of Congress unanimously cleared the legislation earlier this year. This will effectively “allow officials at all levels of the United States government, including Cabinet-level national security officials, general officers and other executive branch officials, to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts,” bringing the U.S. one step closer to upgrading its central yet ambiguous relationship with Taiwan.
While this will predictably draw sharp protests from China, similar to those when the bill passed the U.S. Congress, President Trump must make it clear to Beijing that this in no circumstances violates the “one China” principle, the political foundation of U.S.-China relationship. Rather, it is a natural progression in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship as guided by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 and a reflection of current geopolitical realities.
To begin with, it is important to note that the U.S. adoption of the “one China” policy is not an endorsement of China’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan, but rather is an agreement to maintain formal relations with China and unofficial relations with Taiwan.
In this regard, allowing high-level official contacts between the U.S. and Taiwan is in accordance with the TRA. As both the U.S. and Taiwan have grown to become each other’s tenth and second largest trading partner, the law’s passage simply recognizes the two’s shared security and economic interests. It is unfortunate that such a law has to be passed in the first place since no part of the TRA prevents U.S. government officials from meeting with their Taiwanese counterparts. Past U.S. administrations have avoided high-level government contacts with Taiwanese government officials simply out of respect for China and to preserve the “status quo” of cross-strait peace and stability. But rather than making a reciprocating gesture and upholding this peace – a fundamental piece of both the “one China” policy and the TRA – on the contrary, China has made more attempts at altering the status quo, with the frequent carrying of Chinese military exercises near Taiwan being the most common example.
So if China is undermining American commitment toward Taiwan, then the U.S. has all the more reason to bring itself closer to Taiwan. Moreover, the idea that policy must remain consistent is confounding. It fails to consider changing geopolitical circumstances and reinforces the common tendency to view U.S-China relations vis-à-vis Taiwan in simple mechanistic terms.
For example, the U.S.-China estrangement and rapprochement vis-à-vis Taiwan from the 1950s to 1970s was a reflection of the geopolitics of the Cold War. The beginning of the Cold War saw U.S. democracy and capitalism versus Chinese and Soviet communism. While the U.S. supported anticommunist regimes and the nationalists who left for Taiwan, the Chinese-Soviet alliance supplied Korea and Indochina with economic and military resources. American foreign policy once again shifted in the 1960s as the U.S. faced a dual Soviet threat in Asia and Europe. China under Mao saw a different Soviet Union led by Khrushchev, and the 1969 border conflict reaffirmed the Soviet threat toward China. With both the U.S. and China growing wary of the increasing Soviet aggression, they put aside their differences over Taiwan and adopted the “one China” policy and the TRA. And as U.S. foreign policy evolved over the years, today, Taiwan is a close U.S. ally and a robust democracy and free-market economy.
At a time when Taiwan is faced with several challenges including a flagging economy, a shrinking working-age population, and diplomatic isolation, the TTA will make it easier for Taiwan to improve its trade and security relationship with the U.S. Politically, the law will help both governments overcome bureaucratic roadblocks in maintaining military and security cooperation with each other, which serves both American and Taiwanese strategic interests. More specifically, it will streamline and simplify the travelling and meeting processes between American and Taiwanese defense officials. Since the U.S. is bound by law to help Taiwan defend itself, the TTA furthers the U.S. commitment to protect Taiwan’s security.
Thus, President Trump must note that the fundamental reality of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship has not changed since 1979, and he must use the TTA as a stepping stone to end this outdated policy of strategic ambiguity. The passage of the TTA is not merely symbolic, but reflects a long overdue reassessment of U.S. policy toward Taiwan.