How the Innovation and Competition Act Could Affect US-Taiwan Relations

How the Innovation and Competition Act Could Affect US-Taiwan Relations
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

Strengthening ties between the U.S. and Taiwan does not need to increase U.S.-China tensions in a zero sum fashion.

Recent moves by U.S. lawmakers shed light on what might be the only durable consensus in Washington, D.C. today: China is the United States’s most important competitor and the time has come for government intervention to better prepare Americans to combat this long-term threat.

The rationale behind the Senate’s easy passage of its sweeping industrial policy bill, which will deliver funding to tech industries the U.S. should have been investing in a long time ago, is one indication that pursuing “strategic competition” with China is one of the few issues that has any chance for bipartisan cooperation. While some aspects of the bill are wholly positive — such as increased funding for government employees to conduct research in Taiwan, other provisions within it, as well as the decision to market it as in direct opposition to China, have the potential to dangerously escalate tensions in the U.S.-China relationship.

Lawmakers and the media should tout the bill for what it offers Americans, not merely on the basis that it may give the U.S. a boost in its technological and economic competition with China. The bill is officially titled the “United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021” but is referred to as the “bill to bolster competitiveness with China,” the “Bill to Help U.S. Compete with China,” and the “bill to curtail China’s economic and military ambitions” by The New York Times, Bloomberg, and The Washington Post

Policymakers’ long overdue decision to pursue industrial policy is, unfortunately, a product of the broader great power competition narrative that stokes conflict irresponsibly and, in the process, threatens to reduce Taiwan to a pawn used by both sides. To those interested in viewing Taiwan in its own right, rather than as a geostrategic tool, the bill poses a difficult question: is it justifiable to strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan relationship by framing Taipei as a tool in the rivalry?

The best part of the bill is the Taiwan Fellowship Act, which authorizes the use of $17.3 million over seven years for U.S. government employees to pursue studies in Taiwan. Increasing funding opportunities for Americans to study in Taiwan is good for all parties concerned — the fellowship recipients, Taiwan, and the United States.

But another aspect of the bill — the Taiwan Symbols of Sovereignty Act, which mandates that the U.S. Secretary of State rescind any measures which limit Taiwan (or its representative offices in the U.S.) from displaying symbols of Taiwan’s sovereignty, is an unproductive appendage that is unlikely to make a tangible difference in the lives of everyday Taiwanese. 

In the context of a deteriorating and distrustful Sino-American relationship, Taiwan offers a setting for Americans to gain Mandarin language training without studying in China. There are many reasons Americans may want to study in Taiwan, but a motivation with increasing salience in recent years has been avoiding potential career hurdles caused by studying in the People’s Republic of China. Some might be pressed to defend their choice to study in or live there and/or prove they are not Chinese spies.

Meanwhile, a series of moves by U.S. lawmakers in recent years and months have sought to curb Chinese students’ ability to attend U.S. universities. President Joseph Biden last month banned the children of Chinese police officers, in addition to other groups, from studying in the United States. The logistical and emotional impediments introduced by such policies of exclusion, plus rising anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S., have created a chilling effect for Chinese students who previously would have wanted to study abroad at American universities. Many of them are now looking elsewhere.

Under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice launched the still-active “China Initiative,” which targets students and academics as suspects of economic espionage on the basis of Chinese ethnicity or nationality. In 2018, Senator Marco Rubio asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to describe the counterintelligence risk posed by Chinese researchers, especially in STEM. 

Wray’s response pulled no punches. “They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it, so one of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just the whole of government threat, but a whole of society threat on their end and I think it’s going to take a whole of society response by us.” 

The Trump administration also banned “certain Chinese students” — specifically, anyone who currently or previously “has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of... an entity in the PRC that implements or supports the PRC’s ‘military-civil fusion strategy’” from attending any research or graduate program in the United States. 

A group of Chinese students affected by the May 2020 Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry as Nonimmigrants of Certain Students and Researchers from the People’s Republic of China launched a website protesting the Proclamation on the grounds that it is antithetical to academic freedom and intellectual exchange. Since President Biden took office, some of the entry restrictions have been lifted.

Among the opponents of these antagonistic measures is Senator Bernie Sanders, who wrote in this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, “It is distressing and dangerous... that a fast-growing consensus is emerging in Washington that views the U.S.-Chinese relationship as a zero-sum economic and military struggle. The prevalence of this view will create a political environment in which the cooperation that the world desperately needs will be increasingly difficult to achieve.” 

While there is no “America Initiative” equivalent, coronavirus travel restrictions and other visa-related obstacles might be pushing Americans who previously would have studied in China to look elsewhere. Taiwan is a top alternative. In the 1960s and 1970s, prior to normalization of the U.S.-China relationship, pursuing exchanges in Taiwan was a reliable option for Americans studying Mandarin and Asian Studies. 

Since many have long advocated for strengthening U.S.-Taiwan relations, especially economic and trade cooperation, to no avail, it is apparent that the adversarial stance toward China taken on in recent years is driving the enthusiasm for warming up to Taiwan. 

But is it in Taiwan’s long term interest to strengthen ties with the U.S. — on education and economic issues — even if it is clear that a critical mass of American counterparts are mainly in it to oppose China? Taiwanese officials might be better served by continuing to push for a productive relationship with the United States that operates on an understanding that Taiwan is more than just a pawn in the most fraught geopolitical competition of the era. 

American students planning to study in Taiwan, meanwhile, should treat the opportunity not as a substitute for going to Beijing or Shanghai, but as a chance to learn about Taiwanese politics, history, and culture as distinct areas of scholarly inquiry. 

American lawmakers should heed the advice that many in the China-watching community have been arguing repeatedly for years — as a last resort argument against unadulterated antagonism toward China: even if we concede that China is an “enemy” of some kind, is it not a more apt approach to “know thy enemy?” 

Cutting off educational exchange cultivates an avoidable gap in Americans’ understanding of China. Unfortunately, that gap is likely to be filled with assumptions of the worst and calls for a continued “all of society” war with a nation whose economic and environmental policies pose real existential threats to Americans — not hyperbolic dangers that are used by political candidates during campaign season. The more opportunities the United States fosters to host international students, including Chinese and Taiwanese scholars, and to support Americans who wish to study anywhere, including China and Taiwan, is helpful. 

International experiences are crucial in order to create more accepting, well-rounded, and globally engaged societies. While realistic measures of caution in crafting policies for educational exchange should undoubtedly be taken, cutting off exchange entirely does little to benefit the U.S. or China. One would hope all sides can agree on one thing: knowledge is power.


READ NEXT: In US-China Conflict, What Is the End Game for Taiwan?

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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