Two Bills, Two Approaches To Taiwan

Two Bills, Two Approaches To Taiwan
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

The two most recent Taiwan-related bill before the U.S. Congress have been presented as further evidence of enhanced U.S.-Taiwan ties. Little has been said, however, on their telling differences.

On October 20, two Taiwan-related bills were introduced in the United States Congress. In the House of Representatives, Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy sponsored a bill called the “China Task Force Act.” In the Senate, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Jeff Merkley cosponsored the “Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act of 2020.”

The introduction of these bills, both containing a mix of substantive changes and symbolic gestures, has been presented in the Taiwanese media as further evidence of enhanced U.S.-Taiwan ties. Little has been said, however, on their telling differences.

The China Task Force Act is a Republican-sponsored bill, and there are no Democrats among its 18 cosponsors. As long as the House is controlled by the Democratic party, this bill is unlikely to pass, rendering it nothing more than a low-stakes opportunity for members of Congress to demonstrate that they are willing to stand up to China.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act, a bipartisan bill, is a more serious attempt at making a law. The “lame-duck” session that will occur between the November election and the new Congress in 2021 will help, as senators who have lost their seats may feel freer to vote as they wish, as they no longer need to face voters.

But the more critical difference between the two bills lies in how they frame U.S.-Taiwan relations. The China Task Force Act is “a comprehensive legislative response to the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party to the United States of America and to freedom, democracy, and human rights around the world.” There are 137 legislative acts included within. Taiwan is mentioned in seven.

The Seven Taiwan-related laws in the China Task Force Act

Of the seven acts that concern Taiwan, three would oblige the State Department or Secretary of Defense to issue a report to Congress on progress in its efforts to support Taiwan diplomatically and militarily. One of the more visible of the other four acts would permit Taiwanese to display and wear Republic of China insignia at U.S. government hosted ceremonies and events.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. July 29, 2020.

The Taiwan Non-Discrimination Act compels the U.S. governor at the International Monetary Fund to oppose increases in China’s voting share if it would help Taiwan participate in international financial institutions. Another act tries to ensure that Taiwanese are not subject to employment discrimination at these institutions.

Even if these two laws were passed, they wouldn’t necessarily change anything. There’s little in the legislation to stop a lead U.S. representative at the IMF or World Bank from ignoring instructions from the Secretary of the Treasury or making use of one of the sweeping exceptions, like “the national interest of the United States,” if they were ever called to account.

Most likely to have material impact if it's passed, though, is the benefits program for U.S. government employees: the Taiwan Fellowship Act, which funds 10 U.S. government employees annually for a two-year work-study program in Taiwan — the first year reserved for Chinese study, the second for government or similar work.

Support for Taiwan: a tool for political theater on China

These pro-Taiwan acts are ensconced within a bill that is really about making a statement of opposition to China, which is not the same thing as a statement of support for Taiwan. Many thoughtful commentators have made the case that Taiwan should accept allies from all corners. But there must be contingency plans for losing some supporters of bills like the “China Task Force Act,” those whose prevailing interest is U.S. dominance in East Asia, if China one day were to be led by a U.S.-friendly regime.

Regardless of future events, the act’s long odds of passage smack of political theater. In a statement to The News Lens on the two bills, the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) President Dr. Minze Chien expressed praise for both, but appears to home in on the Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act:

If passed, the Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act (TRRA) would lead to an upgraded U.S. policy toward Taiwan that better reflects current cross-strait dynamics and circumstances in the Indo-Pacific. China is now an aggressive and militarily advanced regional power, and the U.S. must incorporate that reality when drafting its Taiwan policy. The act is also in line with our efforts on the Taiwan Fellowship Act and Taiwan Envoy Act. The China Task Force Act
definitely bolsters these efforts.

Continuing on the Taiwan Envoy Act encompassed by the Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act, Chien said,

The Taiwan Strait is still one of the flashpoints in the world. It behooves the Senate to vet this prospective AIT Director to the maximum. Also, the AIT director acts, talks, and walks like an ambassador, so their appointment should be confirmed by the Senate. After all, Congress has the right to oversee U.S.-Taiwan relations through such a confirmation process.

Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act

The Senate bill begins with affirmations of U.S. commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the “Six Assurances,” and calls for the negotiation of a free-trade agreement as soon as possible. Almost certainly owing to Senator Merkley’s influence, the language on trade speaks of “a high level” of environmental and labor rights that an agreement must uphold. This, like the affirmations in the beginning of the bill, is non-binding.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Taiwan Finance Minister Su Jain-rong, Taiwan National Development Council Minister Kung Ming-hsin, director of American Institute in Taiwan Brent Christensen, and Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu attend a news conference about infrastructure cooperation between Taiwan and the United States, in Taipei, Taiwan, September 30, 2020.

There are three substantive changes the bill would make. It would create an “interagency Taiwan policy task force” involving senior officials, establish a new U.S.-Taiwan Cultural Exchange Foundation, and elevate the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director position to more closely resemble an ambassadorial post — the title of director would change to representative, and like ambassadors, nominees would have to go through Senate confirmation. This is an incorporation of earlier legislation, the Taiwan Envoy Act.

The remit and power of the policy task force are unclear, the AIT reform significant but largely symbolic, but the exchange foundation may have the longest legacy by creating a larger constituency of U.S. citizens with a personal stake in Taiwan’s future. The foundation is to work with school districts and educational institutions to send high school and university students to Taiwan for study, but there’s no mention of funding.

The Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act is not only deserving of greater attention because it has a greater chance of passing. It allows support for Taiwan without being yoked to the highs and lows of U.S.-China relations.

READ NEXT: Strengthening US-Taiwan Relations Without a Military Commitment

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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