OPINION: Should Tsai Address US Congress? Let's Ask the People of Taiwan

OPINION: Should Tsai Address US Congress? Let's Ask the People of Taiwan
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What you need to know

The brunt of any consequences, positive or negative, to Tsai addressing US Congress would be felt by the people of Taiwan.

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In an opinion article published in The Hill on Jan. 21, Taiwan and China expert Joseph Bosco proposed that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) should be invited to speak in front of a joint session of U.S. Congress. Soon after, several Republican senators asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to extend an invitation to Tsai – including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of whom have traditionally advocated for Taiwan and opposed Chinese pressure on Taiwan’s government and international presence.

The reasons are clear: In 2019, the U.S. ought to move towards a more normalized relationship with Taiwan. As former Dutch diplomat Gerrit van der Wees writes in The Diplomat, though Western powers such as the U.S. and EU applaud Taiwan’s democracy, “their antiquated policies are still stuck in the 1970s.” (The U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 at a time when the Republic of China (ROC) was governed under martial law.)

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Credit Taiwan Presidential Office
Tsai Ing-wen meets with US Senator Ted Cruz on Jan. 9, 2017.

Despite this, the U.S. remains in nominal compliance with the “one China policy” and engages in restricted diplomatic contact with Taipei, often toeing the line between angering China and continuing U.S. commitment to Taiwan.

Bosco and Van der Wees are right: the lack of normalized relations and codified commitment between Taiwan and the U.S. is indeed an important issue as the U.S. attempts to pivot to the Indo-Pacific region in order to counterbalance the rise of China.

It’s not about what’s being done, it’s about perceptions in Taiwan

Taiwan’s ambiguous political status and the absence of a codified mutual defense treaty despite de facto military cooperation puts the U.S.-Taiwan relations in an awkward position within Taiwan, especially among its citizenry. For one, there is already a fairly popular narrative in Taiwan that the U.S. merely sees Taiwan as a bargaining chip.

Such a narrative should be worrying, since another way for the U.S. to lose Taiwan is for the Taiwanese public to become more supportive of China than it is of the U.S. A Taiwanese public that increasingly senses a U.S. reluctance to stand up for its principles may take measures to steer closer towards China – a country that shares far more with Taiwan in terms of culture, historical ties, and geographic location. The results of last year’s November regional elections are, perhaps, evidence of this.

Given Taiwan’s international marginalization, Taiwanese are particularly aware and receptive of their status in the world. Events in Washington frequently influence this perception.

On the other hand, an invitation to President Tsai would be seen as an unprecedented gesture of firm support. This would help forge the perception of U.S. as a reliable partner in Taiwan, thus acting in U.S. interests to foster positive public support for itself and away from China.

The people of Taiwan must feel like their push for democracy is being rewarded and supported by the U.S. The U.S. simultaneously needs to be especially careful with leaving Taiwan and its leaders unattended for too long.

It is worth keeping in mind that one popular saying in Taiwan goes “freedom is great, but can it feed a family?” (民主能吃嗎?)

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Credit: 楊之瑜 / The News Lens
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) gives a speech at the opening of the American Institute in Taiwan as then AIT Director Kin Moy (C) and Principal Deputy Director in the Overseas Buildings Operations Bureau of the US Department of State William Moser look on.
Oppositions to the proposal

As with any issue of contention regarding Taiwan, there exist explicit voices of opposition towards the proposal to bring President Tsai. Former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chairman and Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard Bush labeled the proposal to bring President Tsai an ”Ill-considered symbolic gesture” that “would make substantive progress Taiwan more difficult, not less.”

Bush brings up good points: There is a need to consider aftermaths to a potential invitation and how it may affect U.S. and Taiwanese interests.

According to Bush, such an invitation would massively sabotage U.S.-China relations.

Out of concern for Taiwan, Bush also fears that Beijing’s armed forces may increase their pressure on Taiwan, conducting more frequent exercises and operations to influence the politics of Taiwan.

But despite the very sound reasons Bush has offered as reasons to not invite President Tsai, there are reasons to dispute some of his claims.

Bush implies the “unofficiallness” of U.S.-Taiwan relations would be violated if an invitation is extended. While an appearance in front of Congress would certainly signal a de facto shift in relations, such a change may not necessarily conflict with U.S. interests given the current U.S. stance shifts to more actively confront China.

For years, the U.S. has mostly left it to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to define the “one-China policy.” Now, it could be a chance for the U.S. to redefine its relations with Taiwan, even if it does not intend to change its official stance. A visit by President Tsai would be a step towards this without making an official change to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Bush quite correctly points out an additional flaw of the invitation: It may have been proposed without considering Taiwan’s view or consulting President Tsai. However, while it is assumed that President Tsai “would not wish to risk a further, serious deterioration in relations with Beijing,” recent events directly contradict this assumption.

In response to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s speech addressing the 40th anniversary of the “Message to the Compatriots in Taiwan,” President Tsai delivered a strong response by denouncing Xi’s proposal of “one country, two systems” for Taiwan and outright rejecting the so-called “1992 consensus.” By pushing back against China, Tsai was rewarded with an increase in support from the Taiwanese electorate. Even the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party had to backpedal on some of its political platforms in the aftermath of Tsai’s response.

An offer to speak before the U.S. Congress may indeed lead to an angry response from Beijing. However, given China’s slow yet steady choke of Taiwan, acknowledging the importance of these 23 million people while opposing a chance for their leader to represent them in front of the U.S. Congress is no different than leaving them to a course of them losing freedom.

Since Taiwan held its first democratic presidential election in 1996, the people of Taiwan have gradually received chances to speak up and represent themselves internationally. Yet in the mere span of some 20 years, another great power – China – has actively seeked to take those rights away. The U.S. government now has the power to enable an opportunity – or to turn a blind eye as the people of Taiwan continue, but struggle to, maintain their hard-earned liberty.

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Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with then-US President-elect Donald Trump on Dec. 3, 2016.
What does Taiwan have to say on the issue?

As such, it would be both inappropriate and overly hasty if the proposal to invite President Tsai is immediately rejected. Speaker Pelosi faces a difficult decision. It would send a contradicting message if she while advocating social justice domestically refuses to grant such an invitation under the consideration of authoritarian China.

Just as J. Michael Cole, Canadian expert on China and Taiwan, writes, a premium is placed on any symbolic gesture to Taiwan. The U.S. needs to judiciously weigh the potential consequences against possible gains in this situation.

As the events unfold, noticeably there is a near-silence from Taiwan and Taiwanese scholars in the U.S. speaking on the offer. Those who have participated in the conversations – Bosco, Bush, Cole, Van der Wees, and the Republican senators who drafted a letter addressing Speaker Pelosi – are all foreign experts with experiences in Taiwan.

Though their expertise is much valued, we cannot expect them to represent the people of Taiwan. There needs to be a simultaneous discussion in Taiwan to consider the invitation. This needs to come from those whose livelihoods and family in Taiwan would be directly affected.

The lack of coordination between President Tsai and the proponents of the invitation should be an indicator that more communication is needed rather than less. By at least waiting for a Taiwanese civil discourse to happen, the U.S. would stay true to its fundamental principle, allowing the people of Taiwan to decide the direction of their political status.

Read Next: Washington and Taipei Are Struggling to Bridge the Cultural and Information Gap

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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