On 14 July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018, a provision that allows for mutual stationing by military vessels between the United States and Taiwan. The Act is now on the floor of the Senate. If passed, a combined version endorsed by both houses would be produced and sent to President Trump to sign into law. The President should veto the Act in the interest of facilitating the development of China-U.S. relations along with his own foreign policy agenda.
Look back to 1979, when China and the U.S. established diplomatic ties. Both sides agreed on three basic principles regarding Taiwan: The Mutual Defense Treaty between the U.S. and Taiwan would be abolished, the U.S. would withdraw troops from Taiwan, and the U.S. would also sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan. If the NDAA is passed and signed into law, the law would practically restate the legality for U.S. military presence in Taiwan in severe contravention of the three basic principles mentioned above. Additionally, the three joint communiques between Taiwan and the U.S. creates a scenario that threatens to jeopardize the basis for China-U.S. relations or even incur retrogression in bilateral ties, leading to serious consequences that either side cannot afford to face.
President Trump surely recognizes that the issue of Taiwan stands at the core of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which China as a nation has been striving relentlessly to defend for generations. China will under no circumstances trade on this matter and spare no effort in defending the bottom line. Any country, force, or individual that attempts to stamp on this bottom line acts as a direct antagonism to China. That is a prevailing view held by all Chinese people.
Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, successive U.S. governments have handled the Taiwan issue with caution. During the 1996 cross-straits crisis, the U.S. government under President Clinton was weighing a proposal by the Defense Department that involved a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group parking at the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung in Taiwan. President Clinton believed such acts would infuriate Mainland China, as U.S. military vessels stationing in Taiwanese ports would bring the relations back to the brink. Hence, President Clinton rejected the proposal, believing it ran counter to a peaceful solution of the Taiwan issue, and harmed relations with China.
The 2018 NDAA passed by congress is an attempt to reinstate the scenario that President Clinton tried to avoid. It would allow U.S. military vessels to station in Taiwan, creating a renewed cross-straits crisis that would eventually undermine China-U.S. relations. President Clinton’s wise decision back then merits serious attention and reference now.
As a not so far-fetched interpretation, the NDAA as it stands now may as well be a decoy set up by Trump opponents to lure him into trouble. By hyping up possible Trump collusion with Russia, anti-Trump campaigns have managed to pit the U.S. against Russia, in spite of seemingly good chemistry between President Trump and President Putin. Trump opponents may be luring the President into signing a contention-prone NDAA into law so China would be pitted against the U.S. It can be imagined when the U.S. stands against two major powers in the world, what kind of strategic dilemma it would face despite all the power it commands.
Given the ongoing political controversy in the U.S., people question whether President Trump would compromise and succumb to pressure to sign the Act. If that should be the case, President Trump would be shooting himself in the foot.
Six months into his presidency, President Trump is no stranger to the political divide between his administration and the establishment of both parties, who don’t identify with Trump as a president and who have gone to great lengths to create complications for him. If Trump takes the bait, the establishment against him will surely jump at the opportunity to unseat him. Regarding the NDAA, compromise from President Trump will vindicate this explanation. If the ongoing investigation of collusion with Russia is any guide, claims of collusion has been gaining momentum despite the absence of solid evidence, and olive branch moves by President Trump—including sacking his former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. Rather, his compromise only results in further investigations into his more inner circle and family members.
Make no mistake, passage of the NDAA as it stands now would embolden separatists calling for Taiwan independence, and the Taiwan authority led by Tsai Ing-wen would exploit the opportunity to aggravate the situation. Some people from Taiwan even suggest U.S. vessels station at Taiping Island in the South China Sea. In response, some voices from the Chinese mainland emphatically predict that this would result in military action by the Chinese mainland to reclaim the Taiping Island, and even further military actions against the Taiwanese authority. This is the last thing that President Trump would want to see.
China-U.S. relations are now growing on the right track as envisioned by both leaders, and it shouldn’t allow intervention by a frivolous act that allows for U.S. military stationing in Taiwan. Sound growth of bilateral ties serves the interest of both countries and their people.