CSR Blog: Nothing into Something: Biden Can Meaningfully Improve the US-Taiwan Relationship

By Daniel Anaforian

Enthusiastic observers in the US and Taiwan watched as President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 into law on December 27, 2020. The excitement over this bill on both sides of the Pacific is due to the fact that contained within this massive omnibus bill was the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2020 (TAA).

The Taiwan Assurance Act

US Representatives Eliot Engel and Michael McCaul first drafted the TAA in 2019 as part of a bipartisan show of commitment to Taiwan on the 50th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TAA encourages the US Department of State (DoS) to craft a policy regarding Taiwan “with the intent to deepen and expand US-Taiwan relations.” To this end, the TAA pushes for the US to “conduct regular sales and transfers of defense articles to Taiwan in order to enhance its self-defense capabilities, particularly its efforts to develop and integrate asymmetric capabilities.” It also encourages the DoS to advocate Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in the UN, the World Health Assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organization, Interpol, and other organizations where statehood is a requirement for membership. According to the TAA, the DoS should also advocate for Taiwan’s membership in international organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNESCO, where statehood is not a requirement. Finally, the TAA mandates the DoS review the department’s guidelines governing US-Taiwan relations within 180 days of the act being signed into law and publish a report entitled “Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan.” The bill also budgeted US$3 million for Taiwan-US collaboration projects via the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), which serves as a platform for Taiwan to share its expertise with partners worldwide, in the absence of membership in multilateral organizations.

The TAA’s signing was met with great appreciation by its Taiwanese counterparts. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) issued a statement praising the TAA for serving “ as testament to robust US support for Taiwan-US relations.” MOFA goes on to pledge that the Taiwanese government “will continue to work with the United States to steadily deepen the comprehensive Taiwan-US global partnership.” Although signed in 2020, this bill parallels decades of past agreements that sought to strengthen US-Taiwan relations. The fact that the TAA mirrors past agreements should not be a welcomed sign for pro-Taiwan groups; it suggests that decades of change in the international environment has not meaningfully improved US-Taiwan relations, and instead that US lawmakers are content to rehash old ideas in a hollow show of support for Taiwan.

The Taiwan Relations Act and the TAIPEI Act

Lawmakers wrote the TAA to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The US passed the TRA in 1979 in response to the normalization of relations between the US and China in the same year. The US saw the potential for cooperation with Beijing and wanted to capitalize on the geopolitical opportunity during the Cold War, and thus chose to diplomatically align with China over Taiwan. This one-for-one switch of diplomatic relations was due to both China and Taiwan’s insistence on the “One-China Principle.” This principle asserts that both sides acknowledge only one China exists, and both Taiwanese and Chinese authorities see their government as the rightful representative of the “One China.” Therefore, both sides forced diplomatic allies to choose between China and Taiwan, and no ally could recognize the other. The US, in adherence to the “One-China Principle” therefore, chose to recognize Beijing as the government of China, at the expense of Taipei.

However, the US Congress, which historically had strong sympathies for Taiwan, sought to salvage the US diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, and passed the TRA to echo its support. It emphasized America’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s future and committed the US to “sell arms of a defensive character” to Taiwan. The TRA also authorized the creation of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which serves as the US’s de-facto embassy in Taipei. Finally, the TRA codified AIT’s status as the de-facto embassy by outlining which services AIT could provide and its tax-exemption status, which aligns with all other US embassies. The TRA sought to create stability in the US-Taiwan relationship amid  the normalization of US-China relations. However, the TAA’s provisions and aspirations are not wholly different from those of the TRA, although the geopolitical situation regarding the US and China has significantly changed.

Even the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enforcement (TAIPEI) Act of 2019 simply reiterates the goals of the TAA. The TAIPEI Act restates the US’s commitment to Taiwan as a like-minded protector of democracy and human rights worldwide. It recognizes Taiwan’s continued loss of diplomatic allies to China and pledges US support to the protection of Taiwan’s remaining partners. In the pursuit of these goals, the TAIPEI Act calls on the US to continue arms sales to Taiwan and for the US to advocate for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. The fact that this bill was signed into law just nine months before the TAA further erodes the perceived importance of the TAA. This shows how the US legislation regarding Taiwan lacks new approaches. Lawmakers seem content to pass laws that simply echo prior bills, without properly addressing current concerns in the US-Taiwan relationship. It suggests that US lawmakers are willing to pat themselves on the back for supporting Taiwan with superficial bills that do not actively improve Taiwan’s position. 

High on Fanfare, Low on Substance

On January 9, 2021, following the TAA’s passage, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the US would lift its self-imposed restrictions on contact with Taiwan. Since 1978, the US has regulated high-level contacts between US and Taiwanese governmental authorities and barred senior Taiwanese governmental officials from holding meetings at the State Department, the White House, or the Executive Office Building. Again, these constraints were attempts to appease China during the process of normalization and keep the US in line with the “One-China Principle.” The lifting of these restrictions is undoubtedly a welcomed sign for US and Taiwanese officials, who want to see bilateral ties grow. Randall Schriver, the current Chairman of the Washington-based think tank Project 2049 Institute stated: “the US should have done this a long time ago.” 

However, the TAA and the lifting of contact restrictions are heavy on ceremony but low on substance. The TAA, while a welcomed show of support, does not differ significantly from the TRA passed 50 years earlier. The lack of actionable change is expected, as the bill is mostly a “sense of Congress,” meaning that the bill only lays out what Congress would like to see the State Department do. The requests made in this bill should have gone further, however, to encourage the DoS to take meaningful action to improve the relationship. This would include pushing the US Trade Representative (USTR) to work towards a Free Trade Agreement with Taiwan and stressing the need for effective coordination with Taiwan’s neighbors for regional security. These issues are far more pressing and contribute more substantially to Taiwan’s security, compared to participation in international organizations. 

Even the lifting of the contact restrictions lacks substance. Secretary of State Pompeo made this announcement with just a week left on the job. This announcement could simply be a final jab at China from the Trump administration, with the intention of making US-China relations more challenging for the incoming Biden team. While Taiwan certainly welcomes the lifting of restrictions, it is, again, not necessarily relationship-altering. As the former deputy director of AIT, David Keegan, stated, the announcement is merely “talking on paper.”

The Ball is in Biden’s Court

It will fall on the Biden Administration to turn these US positions on Taiwan into actionable policies. The TAA charges Biden’s DoS with putting together the “Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan” report mandated by the TAA. This report, and the subsequent Congressional Foreign Relations Committee hearings, will more clearly show the direction the Biden Administration is taking US-Taiwan relations. If the Biden Administration comes out firm in their commitment to strengthening US-Taiwan ties, and outlines meaningful steps to improve Taiwan’s security substantially, then it gives all parties a clear indication of the future. Additionally, Biden’s team could outline, either in these hearings or elsewhere, plans to meet with high-level Taiwanese officials, in line with the lifting of the restrictions. Doing so would suggest that Pompeo’s announcement was not just “talking on paper.” 

In order to produce tangible results out of these policy changes, the Biden Administration must act quickly and decisively. Putting pressure on the USTR to move towards an FTA with Taiwan would certainly showcase their commitment. This should include a visit to Taiwan by the USTR, now that the US has lifted the restrictions. A visit to the island by CIA, Defense, or military officials should also be made, in conjunction with other allies in the region, to discuss the many pressing security issues. By taking these actions the Biden Administration can show support in a way that truly demonstrates its commitment to Taiwan’s national security.  

Despite many of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy failures and missteps, their policies, in conjunction with Congressional acts, set the framework for the US and Taiwan to strengthen their relationship in a meaningful and actionable way. How the Biden team operates in the first few months of their administration will clearly demonstrate whether these recent changes will truly improve US-Taiwan relations.

Daniel Anaforian is an editor for the SAIS China Studies Review. He is also a first-year MA student at SAIS with a concentration in China Studies. His research interests include Taiwanese politics, cross-Strait relations, and human rights in Asia more broadly.

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