What you need to know
The Taiwan Travel Act merely signals the potential of closer US-Taiwan ties, and from a reluctant and unpredictable White House at that.
By Brian Hioe
The passage of the TTA (TTA) has been hailed as a triumph by pro-Taiwan groups in the U.S. as representing a step forward in advancing U.S.-Taiwan relations, usually with the claim that the U.S. and Taiwan share democratic values. It is only natural for America and Taiwan to build stronger ties in the face of threats from China, they claim.
Yet coverage of the passage of the TTA by Western media (summarized here on The View from Taiwan) often acts as though the move were not in America’s strategic interest or founded on rational calculation. Instead, the TTA is cited as another dangerous move by the Trump administration, one which will be dangerously provocative of China.
These two polarized positions appear to share a sense of the TTA’s significance for future relations between the U.S., Taiwan, and China. However, both positions miss the point entirely. The passage of the TTA changes very little about the fundamentals of U.S.-Taiwan relations, but instead simply makes a new tactical move available in their diplomatic repertoire.
The TTA allows for the visit of high-level Taiwanese government officials to America, something that was previously forbidden according to self-imposed limitations by America after it switched recognition from the ROC to PRC in 1979. Notably, China has acted as though this is dangerously provocative, threatening military reprisals against Taiwan for the passage of the TTA.
But it would be foolish to assume that the TTA means anything fundamental simply because China has responded strongly against it. In general, placing too much weight on Chinese invective can be misleading since China usually responds to any diplomatic actions by Taiwan with condemnation. To think that something is important because China condemns it, in fact, leads to inaccurate assessments regarding which diplomatic moves China is actually worried about. This may comprise the tactical utility of continual, never-ending Chinese invectives against Taiwan.
The TTA will, in theory, allow American and Taiwanese government officials to make a display of closer U.S.-Taiwan on the world stage through visits of high-ranking Taiwanese government officials to America. Some call, for example, for a Trump-Tsai meeting to follow up on the Trump-Tsai phone call that provoked a great deal of controversy shortly before Trump took office due to how this broke from decades of past American diplomatic precedents.
Yet the TTA does not truly signal any closer actual cooperation between Taiwan and America per se. American and Taiwanese government officials do not have to meet physically to exchange information, after all, no more than Ma Ying-Jeou and Xi Jinping meeting in Singapore near the tail end of Ma’s presidential term was primarily grandstanding for the public. In the age of the Internet, the telephone, and other forms of advanced telecommunications, Ma and Xi really did not have to physically meet in order to communicate, share information, or even coordinate strategies. So, too, with the Trump and Tsai administrations.
The TTA, then, is probably best viewed as something directed towards the outside world, providing for the possibility of U.S. government officials meeting with Taiwanese ones as a diplomatic signal to the world of closer cooperation between Taiwan and the United States. Although American State Department officials visited Taiwan shortly after its passage, and this has been viewed as a dividend of its signing, it is questionable whether high-level visits from figures more in the public eye, such as Trump or individuals directly below him, will ensue.
With the protectionist and hawkish wing of the Trump administration on the resurgence, as observed in the re-ascendance of Mike Pompeo, Peter Navarro, John Bolton, and the ouster of Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn, the principle of Chekhov’s gun applies here.
With the protectionist and hawkish wing of the Trump administration on the resurgence, as observed in the re-ascendance of Mike Pompeo, Peter Navarro, John Bolton, and the ouster of Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn, the principle of Chekhov’s gun applies here. The possibility of the TTA being put into use sometime in the future under the Trump administration has increased.
Yet even if the TTA does not come into play, one expects it to be used as significant political ammunition within Taiwan among conflicting forces within the Democratic Progressive Party. Notably, elements of the DPP calling for some form of rapprochement with China have returned, having previously been silenced when the “Tsai faction” swept to power following following the Sunflower Movement’s show of resistance towards the Ma administration’s pro-China policies, putting Tsai Ing-wen into power on a platform of shifting away from the previous Ma administration’s pro-China stance.
Advocacy of rapprochement with China had been expressed in the DPP in the past by individuals such as Frank Hsieh, currently Taiwan’s representative to Japan. Such views have recently been again expressed by Hsu Hsin-liang, who would join with Su Chi of the KMT in order to urge the DPP to avoid total reliance on America and to seek some form of rapprochement with China.
Avoiding total reliance on America is logical for Taiwan, not only in light of the long history of America treating Taiwan as a geopolitical pawn but also the instability of the Trump administration. Yet Hsu, a former DPP chair sometimes perceived as an ally of Hsieh, had supported the pan-Blue coalition from 2000 to 2008. The Tsai administration may leverage the passage of the TTA to silence these dissenting voices within the DPP, citing, for example, claims by former AIT head William Stanton that the passage of the TTA means that America indirectly acknowledges that Taiwan is a country – a gratuitous claim that highly overstates the significance of the Act.
It also serves to look at American claims about the TTA as representing a strong stance by America in favor of Taiwan, as claimed by Stanton or others, with a high degree of skepticism. The Trump administration notably downplayed the passage of the TTA by releasing news of its passage on a Friday, a usual practice by presidential administrations to try and “kill” a story. Despite the fact that American foreign policy is again shifting in the direction of a strong anti-China stance, which may mean stepping up of support for Taiwan, the many shifts of the Trump administration leave one with little faith that any of its policy positions will be permanent.
Returning to the root of the matter, America’s policy to not allow high-profile Taiwanese government officials to visit America was self-imposed to begin with; these were never even terms of its agreement with China as part of the the Shanghai Communique or other significant agreements between America and China concerning the status of Taiwan.
American hypocrisy when it comes to matters of Taiwan is nothing new, whether it comes to the history of martial law and American support for Chiang Kai-Shek’s dictatorial rule, or contemporary suggestions by Donald Trump that he sees Taiwan as a bargaining chip with China.
And so Taiwan needs to be wary of both America and China. This should be kept firmly in mind going forward.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.
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TNL Editor: David Green