What Do the US Midterm Elections Mean for Relations With Taiwan?

What Do the US Midterm Elections Mean for Relations With Taiwan?
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Incoming House Democrats are likely to maintain a policy of diplomatic and military support for Taiwan.

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Democrats have taken the House of Representatives while Republicans will retain control of the Senate as the final results of the Nov. 6 United States midterm elections continue to trickle in.

The shakeup in the House will complicate President Donald Trump's ability to push his domestic agenda, as the Democratic House majority can block legislation it does not support. It is unlikely, however, that the results will deal a blow to the Trump administration's policies towards Taiwan.

Since Trump's election in 2016, ties between the U.S. and Taiwan have been unprecedentedly warm as the U.S. has engaged Beijing in an all-out trade war. Congressional Democrats have stood with Trump in taking a tougher stance on Chinese trade and intellectual property practices and have been critical of actions seen as favorable to China, such as Trump's decision in May to ease U.S. penalties on Chinese technology firm ZTE.

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Credit: US White House / Public Domain
US President Donald Trump signs the Taiwan Travel Act into law on Mar. 16, 2018.

The Taiwan Travel Act, signed into law by Trump on Mar. 16, was passed by both the House and Senate with no opposition.

Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the Democrat in line to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has publicly spoken in support of Taiwan and has visited Taiwan numerous times. He told Reuters ahead of the Nov. 6 elections that his committee would not actively seek to change the status quo with China. "I don't think we should challenge something just because it's put forth by the administration," he said.

Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat set to chair the House Armed Services Committee, has scrutinized Trump's military spending, telling defense publication Task & Purpose in February that no realistic military budget could account for all hypothetical scenarios, including a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. But Smith has ardently supported arms sales to Taiwan in the past and, as a representative, has reliably voted in favor of U.S. support of Taiwan's defense.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is responsible for legislation impacting Washington's diplomatic affairs, while the Armed Services Committee funds and oversees American defense policy and its executive level Department of Defense. In October, a US$330 million (NT$10.13 billion) arms sale to Taiwan won de facto approval from the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Senate counterpart.

Along with the 435 seats in the House – whose members serve terms of two years – 35 seats in the Senate were up for grabs. Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who co-chairs the U.S. Senate Taiwan Caucus and in August joined three Republican colleagues to call for Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization (WHO), won his re-election campaign on Tuesday.

The election was broadly seen as a referendum on the Trump administration's brand of right-wing populism, and predictions of a Democratic "blue wave" of dominance in House, Senate, and governor races proved hopeful. However, while Democrats never lodged a serious challenge for the Senate, they appear to be on the verge of gaining a handful of governor's seats as votes continue to be counted in several close races.

Who are Eliot Engel and Adam Smith?

As Democrats gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time during the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Taiwan will rapidly familiarize itself with Democratic committee heads who wield considerable influence over U.S. foreign policy.

Rep. Engel, the presumptive chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, described himself as a "strong supporter of Taiwan" in remarks made in support of the Taiwan Travel Act.

"I’ve visited there many times, including with the Chairman, who has been a longstanding champion and highly regarded expert on Taiwan issues," he said, referring to then-Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican who did not seek re-election in 2018.

"Taiwan is a flourishing multiparty democracy of more than 20 million people and a vibrant free-market economy," Engel continued in his remarks. "It’s a leading trade partner of the United States – alongside much bigger countries like Brazil and India."

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Credit: Reuters / Joshua Roberts
US Representative Eliot Engel speaks to the media in Sep. 2013. Engel is in line to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Taiwan Relations Act, passed in 1979 and a formative basis of U.S.-Taiwan relations ever since, has "been instrumental in maintaining peace and security across the Taiwan Straits and in East Asia," Engel said in his remarks.

Engel was also a co-leader of a letter, signed by over 200 congressmen and sent to the WHO in May 2018, calling for it to allow Taiwan to participate in that month's World Health Assembly.

House Democrats are unlikely to waver from the current administration's tacit support of Taiwan. As Engel has noted, the White House wields considerable executive power when deciding on measures such as whether to penalize, or merely admonish, countries which switch their allegiances from the ROC (Taiwan) to the PRC (People's Republic of China).

Rep. Adam Smith, set to chair the House Armed Services Committee, easily won re-election on Tuesday over fellow Democratic challenger Sarah Smith. Serving Washington state's 9th congressional district since 1997, Rep. Smith co-sponsored the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which contains provisions seen as opening the door towards potential expansions in military support for and cooperation with Taiwan.

Both Engel and Smith are highly likely to wield their power as chairmen to scrutinize the Trump administration's approach to relations with Russia and push for hearings on Iran, Yemen, and other states. They are not, however, expected to push for considerable change to the administration's positions on Taiwan and China.

Of course, predicting the actions of the notoriously erratic Trump administration can be the ultimate fool's errand. Some in the international community hope a Democratic House which can check Trump's legislative desires will bring a modicum of stability to Washington which has gone missing since his shocking 2016 victory.

The Democratic victory in the House, in the view of one European diplomat who spoke to Foreign Policy prior to the vote, will "prevent things from totally spiraling out of control."

Taiwan allies remain in place

There were no major shakeups among Taiwan's most reliable congressional allies, although some politicians who have audibly supported Taiwan have departed from their respective office.

Senator Bob Menendez, co-chair of the U.S. Senate Taiwan Caucus, handily won re-election over Republican challenger Bob Hugin in a surprisingly tough race in which Menendez was harshly criticized over past corruption allegations.

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Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu
Ed Royce, the outgoing chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, attends a meeting with Taiwan's Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan on Mar. 27, 2018 in Taipei.

Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, all of whom joined Menendez in supporting Taiwan's participation in the WHO, did not face re-election on Tuesday, nor did Republican David Perdue of Georgia, who visited Taiwan and met with Tsai Ing-wen in May.

The aforementioned Ed Royce, formerly chair of the House Armed Services Committee, is departing Congress after serving as a Republican since Jan. 2013. In a March visit to Taipei, Royce met with President Tsai, Premier William Lai (賴清德), Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) and National Security Council Secretary General David Lee (李大維).

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who made several visits to Taiwan and spearheaded the opening of a Wyoming trade office in Taipei, is also departing office after two terms as governor.

Read Next: US Defense Act Angers China, Reaffirms Status Quo for Taiwan

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