Taiwan Travel Act awaits Trump Verdict

Taiwan Travel Act awaits Trump Verdict
photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/達志影像

What you need to know

The bill passed the U.S. House and Senate with veto-proof majorities.

The passage of the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) through the U.S. Senate on Feb. 28 has been greeted with much fanfare and has triggered posturing on both sides of the Strait, but the true measure of the law has yet to be taken.

While the TTA in theory allows high-level exchanges of government officials to take place both in Taiwan and the U.S., while also encouraging Taiwanese state institutions to promote business with local and federal U.S. officials, it is a purely symbolic document.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration follows through on the TTA's underlying sentiment – to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Taiwan – with meaningful action.

"[The legislation] is all non-binding, suggestions rather than orders," said Richard C. Bush, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at The Brookings Institution, a Washington DC-based think tank. "The president is under no obligation to act on the suggestions. He already has the authority to do what Congress suggests. Whether he does so will be a function of his broader view of whether or how to improve U.S.-Taiwan relations."

The U.S. has dispatched Cabinet-level officials to Taiwan in the past. It was only in 2014 that Gina McCarthy, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a member of President Obama's cabinet, became the first Cabinet-level official to visit Taiwan from the U.S. since 2000.

Nevertheless, the bill signals the seriousness with which Congress treats relations with Taiwan and provides greater incentive for President Trump to send officials to Taipei, according to Michal Thim, a Taiwan analyst at the Prague-based think tank the Association for International Affairs (AMO), and a member of the Center for International Maritime Security.

“I would not expect a Secretary-level visit but on the level of Deputy Secretary of Defense, State, or other departments with agenda of mutual interest,” Thim said. “[Visits] at the level of deputy commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet based in Japan, or even deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command would certainly be desirable.”

While such exchanges would be something of a symbolic coup for Taiwan, Thim suggested that facilitating more frequent visits by Undersecretary-level officials and high-rank military officers would be of greater underlying value. “A couple of high-level visits would ideally encourage more frequent traffic on the levels below Deputy Secretary,” he said.

The TTA’s long-term significance thus now rests in the hands of Trump, who has yet to sign the bill into law. Given the president's penchant for using new legislation as an opportunity to pronounce on policy, all ears will be attuned his remarks when he comes to put pen to paper.

That is likely to happen in a prickly environment for U.S.-China relations amid bristling trade tensions over imports of Chinese metals, which if Trump’s statements are to be believed, is directly related to his dissatisfaction over China’s lackluster efforts in bringing North Korea to heel.

Trump on March 1 announced the imposition of tariffs on U.S. imports of steel and aluminum, even as the Chinese trade negotiator Liu He, widely tipped as China President Xi Jinping’s pick for next People’s Bank of China governor and a key economic aide, was in Washington to help stave off a deepening of the trade spat.

The cross-Strait situation also remains volatile, with the Feb. 28 formation of a political coalition in Taiwan pushing for a pro-independence referendum drawing ire from Beijing, alongside similarly predictable warnings attached to the TTA itself. In a China Daily editorial, the Communist Party mouthpiece suggested the TTA's passage violates the "one-China principle" under which China views Taiwan as part of its territory, while failing to acknowledge that U.S. policy has yet to recognize this. The editorial added that the TTA would encourage Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) "in her bid to portray the island as eligible for state-to-state relations. Which, if she persisted, would lead to the inevitable consequence of triggering the Anti-Secession Law that allows Beijing to use force to prevent the island from seceding."

For her part, Tsai endorsed the bill on Twitter, saying: "#TaiwanTravelAct symbolizes the #US Congress' longstanding support for #Taiwan. The Taiwan-US partnership is a key pillar of peace & stability for the Indo-Pacific region & I am grateful to all members of Congress who supported this important bill."

Thim also said that the recent decision by China’s leader Xi Jinping to cast off term limits for his presidency, paving the way for him to rule until his death, further incentivizes the U.S. to strengthen relations with Taiwan.

“Relations between Taiwan and the U.S., and the U.S. and China are complex and, at times, some statements may indicate that Taiwan is a mere card to be played in order to get concessions from China. But this is far from how Congress or even the government see Taiwan. There is a genuine interest in maintaining good Taiwan-U.S. relations because it is mutually beneficial.”

It is into this cauldron that the TTA finds itself cast. Whether it catches fire or burns slow is now in the hands of President Trump.

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Editor: Morley J Weston