13.01.2018 Author: Vladimir Terehov

America’s Shifting Position on Taiwan Is Pushing the World into a Dangerous Crisis


It’s rather unfortunate that Murphy’s law stating that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” applies to the world of international politics just as well. The conflicting positions of the US and China on a number of issues has already become a reason for rising tensions between the leading world powers. Yet, as it’s been noted time and time again, the ongoing Korean crisis is hardly the only matter that can lead to explosive and far reaching consequences. This is especially so considering the situation surrounding Taiwan.

To make matters worse, the US House of Representative has recently adopted the so-called Taiwan Travel Act which, according to Beijing’s Global Times, constitutes a fundamental change in Washington’s policy regarding Taiwan.

Should this legislative act receive approval in the Senate and then be signed in into a law by the US president it would mean that American and Taiwanese officials will be legally allowed to make official mutual visits. The Taiwan Travel Act was introduced into the US House of Representative two weeks before US President Donald Trump’s inauguration, which means it’s unclear whether or not the text of this legislative act was approved by him personally, but it’s clear that it will seriously jeopardize US-Chinese relations if passed.

One can only add that the concept behind the Taiwan Travel Act reflects the position promoted by Stephen Bannon, who was the chief executive officer of Trump’s presidential campaign before being appointed Chief Strategist in the Trump administration, the position that he had to abandon in mid-2017. Bannon was one of the “totally anti-Chinese” representatives in Trump’s team which made him one of the most hated American political figures in Beijing, which is understandable.

The final adoption of the Taiwan Travel Act will mark the second radical step in Washington’s approach towards Taiwan. The first was the adoption of Taiwan Relations Act back in 1979 which strained US-Chinese relations. But the White House then believed that it could get away with it due to the fact it was establishing diplomatic relations with China that same year and felt it could adopt a separate law regarding Taiwan. Before establishing official relations with Washington, Beijing put forward a precondition that Washington could not treat Taiwan as a separate state. However, the above mentioned Taiwan Relations Act introduced a number of restrictions on Beijing’s actions from American point of view. For instance, it prohibits any use of “unpeaceful measures” against Taiwan, while adding that boycotts and embargoes are not on the list of civilized ways of settling disputes.

In effect, this Taiwan Relations Act undermined Washington’s own agreement to recognize the “One-China Policy” .

In the Congressional Budget Office Cost Estimate that was ordered by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs it is recalled that upon the termination of diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, which made all contacts between the US and Taiwan “unofficial”, Washington’s interests on the island were advanced by a private, non-profit body known as the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). It’s curious that it was located in the same building in Taipei that housed the US embassy prior to 1979 and, quite possibly, was used by the same staff that was employed by the former embassy. A similar metamorphosis occurred within the former Taiwan embassy in Washington, which was transformed into the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO).

The draft of the Taiwan Travel Act recognizes the Taiwan Relations Act as the “cornerstone” that shaped the development US-Taiwan relations for over three decades. Nevertheless, TRA-1979 introduced a number of restrictions on official contacts between American and Taiwanese officials.

It means that Washington has apparently decided it is time to expand its ties with Taiwan, especially within the framework of Trump’s “renewed US national security strategy” that perceives China as the principal immediate threat to the US. That is why Washington wants its officials at all levels, including those who oversee security issues within the government, to travel freely to Taiwan to hold official talks with their Taiwanese counterparts. And the Taiwan Travel Act enables it to do just that. It goes without saying that the legislative initiative in question grants Taiwanese officials similar capabilities.

If the adoption of TRA-1979 almost four decades ago could be compared with the removal of the seal that kept the Pandora’s box shut, the appearance of the Taiwan Travel Act amounts to a partial lifting of the lid. Figuratively speaking, should Washington recognize Taiwan as an independent subject of international law at any point in history, this lid will be blown off completely, marking the end of US-Chinese relations as we know it.

It’s enough to recall that until 1971 the “Republic of China” as Taiwan still presented itself upon the international stage was one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. But China will not allow the situation regress this far again. It’s rather telling that Chinese President Xi Jinping for the second time in six month was seen wearing a military uniform in public.

Calm and balanced analysis shows that as China transforms into a global power it sends a clear message to Washington that is searching for a mutually beneficial strategy  (a win-win scenario). Within the framework of such a strategy, one can easily find a solution to the problem of Taiwan. For sure, the issue looks much more complicated than the problem of integrating Taiwan into China, as external players voice criticism of Beijing only in connection of the existing democratic procedures in Hong Kong. But let’s recall that before 1997 there was no “democratic procedures” in Hong Kong to speak of.

However, mutually beneficial steps can be made only when US special interests refrain from playing with fire by recognizing that China will continue taking an uncompromising position regarding Taiwan, meaning the Taiwan Travel Act doesn’t look like a sensible piece of legislation from any point of view.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”