A seemingly innocuous bill—one that allows senior U.S. officials to travel to Taiwan and vice versa—was passed by unanimous consent by the U.S. Senate and House signed into law by President Donald Trump. This rare show of American bipartisanship is the latest in a long string of incidents that has caused the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to lash out against both the United States and Taiwan.
The main piece of the Taiwan Travel Act states, “It should be the policy of the United States to (1) 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 counterpoints. . . . [and] (2) allow high-level officials of Taiwan to enter the United States, under conditions which demonstrate appropriate respect for the dignity of such officials, and to meet with officials of the United States.” The law never uses the word “must,” but instead uses “should,” so the president is not legally required to make the changes in U.S. policy contemplated by the law.
Before this law was passed, U.S. policy has been to prohibit such officials from reciprocal visits. The absence of formal diplomatic relations provided a rationale for a practice that accommodated Beijing’s objections. Whenever the President of Taiwan enters American territory, it is only for “stop-over” visits when he or she is en route to another country. Most recently, in October 2017, President Tsai Ing-wen travelled through Honolulu where she visited the Pearl Memorial on her trip to visit some of Taiwan’s Pacific Island allies. In January 2017, Tsai visited San Francisco and Houston en route to Central America.
Unsurprisingly, every time Tsai stops in the U.S., the PRC accuses her and Taiwan of tricking the United States and urges the U.S. government to forbid her from entering.
In response to the Senate passing this law, An Fengshan, spokesman for the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said, “We are firmly against the act. . . . We sternly warn Taiwan not to rely on foreigners to build you up, or it will only draw fire against yourself.”
In a press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying emphasized the negative impact the law has on U.S.-PRC relations and that it is a violation of the one-China principle.
This response is predictable since any time any country, but especially the United States, tries to upgrade relations with Taiwan in some way, China claims it violates the “One China” principle.
During Tsai’s tenure in office, this habitual reaction has been accompanied by some sort of ominous warning of attack or invasion. This time, Beijing warned Taiwan not to “draw fire against yourself.”
In December 2017, a Chinese diplomat explicitly threatened an invasion of Taiwan if the U.S. were to follow through on another measure passed by Congress, authorizing reciprocal ports of call by the U.S. and Taiwanese navies.
Relations between Taiwan and China have been quite poor since Tsai took office in 2016. The Taiwan Travel Act, even though it was passed the U.S. Congress and is not Taiwanese law, will only give China yet another reason to increase pressure on Taiwan. The U.S. will be on the receiving end of some harsh rhetoric from China, but Beijing will lash out at Taiwan in both word and deed.
What Does the Law Do?
China’s reactions come in response to a law that does not require much and may not do much. The Taiwan Travel Act does not bind or force President Trump to send officials to Taiwan, or receive officials from Taiwan. The law only urges the president to do so. For allowing Taiwanese officials into the United States, the law even has a modifier—“under conditions which demonstrate appropriate respect for the dignity of such officials”—that allows wiggle room for the president to avoid further angering China, if he so chooses, while also not flouting the will of Congress.
Nevertheless, the law demonstrates a renewed American commitment to Taiwan. Since Trump took office, Congress has passed measures that point to greater U.S. assurances of Taiwan’s security. One of the most important measures is found in the 2018 Defense Authorization Act, calling for allowing ships to make port calls in Taiwan. Now, with the Taiwan Travel Act, a law also calls for senior-level civilian U.S. officials to enter Taiwanese territory as well.
Before the act passed, U.S. Congressmen were free to visit Taiwan whenever they wished, but there were strict bans on senior military officers and executive officials from doing so. Now, that will change if—but only if—President Trump orders the officials to make the trip.
And the law does not call for official visits by the presidents and vice presidents of the U.S. and Taiwan. If the law’s agenda is implemented, Tsai’s subordinates can be received by their American counterparts, but she is still limited to brief stop-over visits.
Even though the law does not legally bind the president to act, the Taiwan Travel Act is another symbolic gesture of the importance that the United States places on Taiwan as an Asian democracy and key partner in addressing the challenges posed by a more assertive China in the region. For the first time since 1979, senior Taiwanese government officials may be permitted to enter the United States and to meet with their counterparts.
In a time when China blocks Taiwan from participating in international organizations like the World Health Assembly (WHA), International Civil Aviation Organizations (ICAO), and Interpol, the ability of senior Taiwanese officials to meet with their American counterparts is even more important.
Even though the law does not require any changes and could harm Taiwan if China were to follow through on its threats and rhetoric, it is an important step in showing that the current U.S. government—both the legislative and executive branches—supports upgrading relations. And that signal is perhaps more important than whether a handful of officials visits occur.