In another strong signal that the United States is reconfirming its support for Taiwan – if not elevating it to a higher level – its House of Representatives unanimously made two pro-Taiwan and anti-China moves on May 7.
The first is a resolution approved by a vote of 414-0 reaffirming the US commitment to the island and to the implementation of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The second is a bill backed by unanimous voice vote, the “Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019,” or TAA.
Though it is non-binding, the resolution is meaningful as it summarizes, restate and reinforce Washington’s robust commitment to Taiwan, especially in three key areas, namely the island’s self-defense, participation in international organizations and high-level contacts with the US. All of these are equally aimed at the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
For instance, the resolution notes that “Taiwan has the expertise, willingness, and capability to engage in international efforts to mitigate global challenges related to such issues as public health, aviation safety, crime, and terrorism, but its participation in such efforts has been constrained by conditions imposed by the [PRC].”
Recalling the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) of 2018, which states “the President should conduct regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan that are tailored to meet the existing and likely threats from the [PRC],” and the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA), the bill reiterates that the president should regularly transfer arms to the island and encourages visits and meetings between the officials of the US and Taiwan “at all levels.”
Unlike the Taiwan resolution, the TAA will become law, if and when it is approved by the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump. This bill also strongly disapproves China’s actions. For instance, it says that the PRC “is currently engaged in a comprehensive military modernization campaign to enhance the power-projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army and its ability to conduct joint operations, which is shifting the military balance of power across the Taiwan Strait” and that “Taiwan and its diplomatic partners continue to face sustained pressure and coercion from the [PRC], which seeks to isolate Taiwan from the international community.”
With such findings, US lawmakers have re-emphasized that their country should transfer arms to Taiwan in order to enhance its self-defense capabilities and ‘advocate for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the United Nations’
With such findings, US lawmakers have re-emphasized that their country should transfer arms to Taiwan in order to enhance its self-defense capabilities and “advocate for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the United Nations.”
Moreover, the bill “directs the Department of State to review its guidance governing US-Taiwan relations and to reissue such guidance to the relevant executive branch departments and agencies” and “to report to Congress on the results of the review.”
It is no surprise that Beijing has reacted angrily. On May 8, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the US of “rudely” interfering in China’s internal affairs and said his country “objects [to the TAA] resolutely and has lodged stern representations to the US side.” On the same day, an editorial in China Daily, one of Beijing’s official mouthpieces, said the passing of the Taiwan resolution was “another sign that the United States is trying to ratchet up pressure on Beijing from all fronts.”
Indeed, the lower chamber of the US Congress’ unanimous backing of the resolution and the bill is just one of the many signs that Washington is becoming more supportive of the democratically governed island and critical of the Communist-ruled mainland.
Late last month, two US guided-missile destroyers, the USS Stethem and USS William P Lawrence, sailed through the 180-kilometer Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan from China. It was the seventh such trip reported since the US Navy conducted a similar mission in July 2018.
By comparison, during the Barack Obama administration, such passages by US warships were far less frequent, about one to three times per year.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark TRA last month, the US sent a high-profile delegation to Taipei. It was led by Paul Ryan, former House of Representatives Speaker, and included several Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well as other officials.
Such a visit was possible mainly thanks to the TTA, which was also passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate in January and February 2018 respectively, and signed into law by Trump a month later.
A remarkable point of the TTA, which is likewise recaptured by the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019, is its finding that since the enactment of the 1979 TRA, the relations between the two sides “have suffered from insufficient high-level communication due to the self-imposed restrictions that the [US] maintains on high-level visits with Taiwan.” Consequently, the TTA clearly states that the US government “should encourage visits between officials from the United States and Taiwan at all levels.”
Indeed, during the US delegation’s stay in Taiwan, Ryan met with President Tsai Ing-wen and other Taiwanese officials. Tsai emphasized the bipartisan support for Taiwan in the US Congress over the past four decades, especially during Ryan’s tenure as Speaker (from October 2015 to January 2019), because during that period the House “passed many bills and resolutions in favor of Taiwan, including the Taiwan Travel Act.”
Ryan and his colleagues also attended several important events, at which they made noteworthy remarks. One of these was the 49-year-old Republican’s speech at the 2019 Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue on April 17, in which he said that from his personal experience as a congressman and the House Speaker, he knew “bipartisanship doesn’t always come naturally, and Congress doesn’t always prioritize national interest above partisan considerations.”
Yet, he rightly pointed out, the United States’ partnership with Taiwan “is a rare issue on which there is consensus from both sides of the aisle, and the Taiwan Relations Act was one of those transcendent moments … and as a result, strong bipartisan support for Taiwan has endured for four decades since.”
“But it could have been otherwise,” he stressed, recalling that then-president Jimmy Carter’s announcement on December 15, 1978, that Washington “would establish diplomatic ties with the [PRC] on January 1, 1979 … came as a complete surprise to almost everyone within the US government, including the entire Congress.”
Ryan, who was the 2012 running mate of presidential nominee Mitt Romney, also highlighted other mistakes and failures by Carter, such as preparing an inadequate bill, namely the Taiwan Enabling Act, “that was a minimalist approach to transitioning to unofficial ties to Taiwan” and his failure “to obtain a clear promise from Beijing that Taiwan’s future would be resolved peacefully.”
Perturbed by the Democratic president’s announcement and his actions, Ryan recalled, Congress overwhelmingly passed the TRA, which “represented a far more robust approach” than Carter’s proposed bill.
Ryan was until recently the United States’ third-most-powerful official, and his voice remains influential in US politics. As he noted at the beginning of his speech, he and his Republican and Democratic colleagues had traveled to Taiwan “to represent many others, both in Congress and the Trump administration, who care deeply about this critically important relationship.” Given all this, his comments were intriguing and revealing.
Nobody could disagree with him that the TRA has been vital to Taiwan’s strong relationship with the US over the past four decades, and, consequently, to the island’s economic prosperity and full-fledged democracy.
Yet by highlighting Carter’s faults and failures, the former Speaker also wanted to stress that most US lawmakers then – and arguably all of them now – did not agree with the way the former Democratic president dealt with the China-Taiwan issue.
Ryan recalled that “only six senators voted against the TRA.” Because of strong partisanship in American politics, such an objection was then considered non-existent. Yet there was still some opposition.
But now, as manifested by the unanimous backing in both the House and the Senate for the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018 and the House’s recent unanimous passing of the resolution and the TAA, the bipartisan support for Taiwan is total and robust. Such backing is even more extraordinary considering the fact that American politics is even more divisive than 40 years ago.
In Taiwan, Washington finds a partner that shares the key political and economic principles that fundamentally constitute the US and have made it powerful, such as openness, freedom, human rights and democracy
Reading the rest of Ryan’s speech at the 2019 Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue, other remarks by him and other US delegates during their stay in Taiwan to mark the TRA’s 40th anniversary as well as many other remarks and reports by US officials during the last two years, one will probably understand why there exists such strong bipartisan support for Taiwan at the moment.
In Taiwan, Washington finds a partner that shares the key political and economic principles that fundamentally constitute the US and have made it powerful, such as openness, freedom, human rights and democracy. They are also the key components of the United States’ “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, which is pointedly aimed at an increasingly assertive, authoritarian and expansionist China.
In his speech, Ryan educed the remarks by US Vice-President Pence on the Trump administration’s policy toward China last October, which stated that “America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people, and for that matter, for all people wherever they call home.”
All in all, judging by its latest declarations and actions, America’s posture toward Taiwan and, consequently, vis-à-vis China, is shifting remarkably. It is not just reaffirming and reinforcing its commitment to the 24-million-people island but also elevating such support to a higher and stronger level at the expense of the Asian behemoth.
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