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What’s in it for Taiwan?

Apr 27, 2020
  • Chen Pingping

    Deputy director of the Research Center for Maritime Economy

In late March, U.S. President Trump signed into law the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act of 2019 (TAIPEI Act), further churning up the already eventful China-U.S. relationship, as well as relations across the Taiwan Strait. The thrust of the act is to shore up so-called diplomatic relations with Taiwan and support it in developing unofficial partnerships through such things as membership in international organizations and enhanced business and trade ties with the United States.

There is no mistaking that the U.S. intends to expand the international space for Taiwan and leverage the Taiwan issue in its wider handling of China-U.S. relations. But the world is in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has roiled the regional and international order. And this begs some questions: Is the U.S. calculation wise or even deliverable? What could Taiwan gain from the act?  

First and foremost, the act demonstrates again that the claim of adherence to the “One-China principle” by the U.S. is all but empty words. Since Trump came into office, he has signed into law a succession of acts related to Taiwan pending legislative procedures: The Taiwan Travel Act, Asia Reassurance Initiative, National Defense Authorization Act and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act of 2019 (TAIPEI Act). The Taiwan Assurance Act, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2018, is awaiting further legislative action in the House of Representatives.

Apart from intense legislation and elevated engagement with Taiwan’s leaders, the U.S. has also enhanced its military sales to Taiwan, and its military vessels have passed with greater frequency through the Taiwan Strait, indicating an incremental but sure evolution in Taiwan policy. This has led to substantial changes.

The TAIPEI Act even goes so far to refer to Taiwan as a “nation,” and some members of the U.S. Congress stated, in discussion the goals of the act, that “it is time to recognize Taiwan as a country.” The act marks the first time that the U.S. has incorporated its so-called diplomatic relations with Taiwan into domestic legislation, and it has even advocated altering things that could undermine the security and prosperity of Taiwan. The act not only provides a legal rationale for the U.S. to push the boundaries, but also underpins U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs.

Of particular note is that these legislative acts arise from a bipartisan and bicameral consensus, indicating that Republicans and Democrats are unified in the strategy of containing China, and that’s unlikely to change no matter outcome of the 2020 election. Obviously, the One-China principle has been hollowed out and the U.S. expects to continue enacting Taiwan- related laws to strengthen its engagement with the island and support its attempt to join international organizations. The idea is to extract the most possible out of the Taiwan issue as a bargaining chip in the comprehensive strategic competition between China and the United States.

The TAIPEI Act is an extension of the current U.S. policy toward China. The COVID-19 pandemic will only accelerate shifts in global architecture that will have unpredictable consequences for the island going forward. The act was proposed by Sen. Cory Gardner in 2018, then tabled in May 2019. It slipped into obscurity after receiving Senate approval in October. In March, the act passed the House and was accelerated. A bicameral consent version was sent to the Senate floor and passed swiftly. Then Trump signed it into law. All of this was done within six months, demonstrating that the U.S. is keen to exploit any window of opportunity offered by the pandemic to contain China. The more robust activities of U.S. warships in the South China Sea add support to the analysis.

The outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. and its spread around the world will accelerate shifts in the international order. U.S. soft power has been undermined because of its inaction and buck-passing in the wake of the outbreak. Pandemic has also wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. With the world economy teetering on the brink of recession and global supply chains disrupted, the U.S.-led global economic order is unwinding rapidly, and a new round of deglobalization is sweeping the West. Economic rejuvenation is the utmost priority on the agenda for governments around the world. There is little chance of support or sympathy for the U.S. right now as it stirs up the Taiwan question. Likewise, Tsai Ingwen and Taiwan authorities are entertaining a fantasy in thinking they can carve out global standing by exploiting the outbreak to contain the Chinese mainland.

Taiwan’s leaders have expressed appreciation to the U.S. for the act, claiming relations between the island and the U.S. are at their best in history. They have become so emboldened that they sent a request through the American Institute in Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations with the U.S. The act, along with the other preceding legislation, has fueled a fantasy in which Taiwan authorities attain international status or even independence.

On March 18, the U.S. and Taiwan jointly issued a statement about combating the pandemic. It was the first public statement issued in the name of both the U.S. and Taiwan since formal relations were severed in 1979, and the first time the Taiwan foreign affairs authorities and the American Institute in Taiwan had jointly signed a document. The statement validates the view that authorities in Taiwan are attempting to exploit the pandemic to contain the mainland and seek independence. It may be seen as a footnote to the TAIPEI Act.

 As a matter of fact, since Tsai took office, Taiwan authorities have steered further toward a path of antagonizing the Chinese mainland while currying favor with the U.S. The election outcome in January and the outbreak of COVID-19 on the mainland provided Tsai with the window of opportunity to pursue her agenda as she banned mask exports and forbade mainlanders’ from entry into Taiwan. She even went so far as to stigmatize the Chinese mainland and prevented Taiwan residents stranded in Wuhan from returning to the island. This further exposes the attempt to undermine the mainland by taking advantage of the outbreak.  

Nevertheless, judging from the substance and content of the act, vocal support and soundbites are all the U.S. can offer Taiwan — nothing more. Establishing diplomatic relations or joining international organizations are just Taiwan’s wishful thinking. Regarding cross-strait relations, it is the Chinese mainland that controls and shape the course of action.

As things stand now, China and the U.S. are at loggerheads in a comprehensive strategic competition. Taiwan has reduced itself to the point of being a pawn of the U.S. More legislation related to Taiwan may be on the way to up to enhance its value as a bargaining chip.

What all these maneuvers on the part of the U.S. will gain for Taiwan is not dictated by the U.S. nor by the Tsai authorities. Be it joining international organizations, expanding so-called diplomatic relations or increasing the island’s international profile, it is but pie in the sky that’s being used to fool the people of Taiwan. Tsai intends to leverage U.S. power to pursue her goal of Taiwan independence.

But the U.S. has little desire to help her achieve more international space, let alone independence. The U.S. is only muddying the water, using the Taiwan issue to consume China mainland’s strategic and diplomatic resources and gain the upper hand in great power competition. Tsai and other on the island, bent on antagonizing the mainland by currying favor with the U.S., risk jeopardizing cross-strait relations and the fortunes of the people of Taiwan. 

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