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Opinion
A Hard Act to Follow
By An Gang | NO. 13, MARCH 29, 2018

Deputies from the Taiwan delegation attend a plenary meeting at the First Session of the 13th National People's Congress in Beijing on March 9 (XINHUA)
On March 16, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a Taiwan-related travel bill that was earlier passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, giving the green light for official communication between the U.S. and the Chinese island. Taiwan's leader Tsai Ing-wen tweeted in English the following day to express her appreciation to the U.S. president, as well as her hope for cooperation with the Trump administration.

The newly enacted Taiwan Travel Act seeks to encourage visits between officials of Taiwan and the United States at all levels, along with a host of other related objectives. It has reiterated various targets contained in the Taiwan Relations Act unilaterally adopted by the United States in 1979 in violation of the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, demanding that measures in three aspects be adopted by the U.S. as policy. First, allowing U.S. officials at various levels, including cabinet officers, to visit Taiwan and meet local officials at the same level. Second, allowing high-ranking officials from Taiwan to enter the United States where they are given a reception appropriate to their rank, and allowed to meet U.S. officials of the same level. Third, encouraging the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office and other Taiwan agencies stationed in the U.S. to conduct activities, including events attended by federal, state and local government officials and high-ranking officials from Taiwan.

In the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, issued in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. "acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China," "recognizes the Government of the People's Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China," and promises that it will maintain only "cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations" with Taiwan. In addition, the U.S. expressed its intention to "reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution."

The Chinese Government swiftly responded to Trump's decision by lodging solemn representations. Spokespersons for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Defense and the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council all expressed opposition to the act, highlighting the fact that Taiwan is an integral part of China, and that the Taiwan question is China's internal affair. Although relevant clauses in the act lack legal binding force, it nonetheless severely violates the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, tantamount to interference with China's domestic affairs, and risks encouraging secessionist forces in Taiwan. China urges the U.S. to correct its mistake by terminating official communication with Taiwan, severing its military connection with the island and properly and carefully dealing with Taiwan-related issues, lest its conduct lead to severe damage to China-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.

At the closing meeting of the First Session of the 13th National People's Congress on March 20, President Xi Jinping said, "The Chinese people share a common belief that it is never allowed and it is absolutely impossible to separate any inch of our great country's territory from China." During his press conference after the meeting, Premier Li Keqiang further made China's stance clear by stating that "we must not tolerate any attempt or proposition for 'Taiwan independence,' nor the attempt of any external force to use Taiwan as a pawn to exacerbate cross-Straits relations or those between people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits."

Internal affairs

Since Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election, there have been growing signs that the Taiwan question could once again present issues for China's relationship with the U.S. As President-elect, Trump insouciantly answered a congratulatory phone call from Tsai before telling U.S. media, "I don't know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy." Shortly after, Tsai stopped over in Houston and met members of the Trump team during a trip to Central America in January 2017.

After assuming office, these issues were temporarily put aside as the Trump administration required China's cooperation and support on a range of issues. Trump and the White House frequently reiterated the U.S. Government's commitment to the one-China policy in public, but clandestine interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan continued. Pro-Taiwan forces in Washington, in collusion with "pro-independence" forces on the island, remained committed to aggravating Taiwan-related issues, trying by multifaceted means to establish the concepts of "two Chinas" and "one China, one Taiwan."

On June 29, 2017, the U.S. Department of State approved and notified Congress of plans for the sale of seven weapons to Taiwan in a deal worth $1.42 billion. This was the first sale of arms to Taiwan by the Trump administration. On December 12, 2017, Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018, which included "strengthening the defense partnership between the United States and Taiwan." Other clauses direct the U.S. Department of Defense to invite Taiwan to participate in annual "Red Flag" aerial combat training military exercises, normalize U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and reestablish naval port call exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan at appropriate locations.

Although the White House later issued a statement claiming that as the only national representative on foreign affairs, the U.S. president would decide which "clauses related to foreign sovereign countries" would be executively recognized, the Trump administration's intention was clear.

The Taiwan Travel Act was devised by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, over which the White House could not exert much influence. Without the president's signature, the bill could still have come into effect 10 days after being submitted to the White House in accordance with U.S. legislative procedure. If the president had vetoed the bill, Congress could still have overridden it through a two-thirds majority vote of the members present and voting in each chamber. It should be noted that the bill passed without any opposition from the Senate or the House. President Trump, rather than opting to passively allow the law to go into effect or vetoing it, signed the bill in a proactive manner, which reveals his prioritization of domestic political maneuvering and foreign strategy adjustment.

Significantly, 2018 will see U.S voters head to the polls in the congressional midterm elections. For now, the primary aim of Trump is to minimize the influence of the midterm elections over his administration, paving the way for his reelection.

The evermore visible rise of China has also sparked increasingly hawkish positions in the U.S., where an agreement was almost reached on strengthening its power to balance China. Playing up to these hardliners, the Trump administration has issued several documents relating to national security, trade, defense and nuclear policies since late last year defining China as a "strategic competitor," and made adjustments to policies in specific fields relating to Taiwan. Trump and his advisors have also realized that the highly complex nature of China-U.S. relations can be manipulated by using Taiwan as leverage to pressure China in bilateral talks.

From the U.S. perspective, in light of the changing circumstances across the Taiwan Straits, specifically the tilting of the military balance in favor of the Chinese mainland, Washington needs to showcase itself as supporting Taiwan politically and militarily, thereby necessitating the improvement of U.S. relations with Taiwan. At the same time, the U.S. has had to reiterate that it does not support "Taiwan independence" in its related policies, as seen in the annual report to Congress on China's military power issued by the U.S. Department of Defense on June 6, 2017.

The Taiwan Travel Act is also part of a wider geopolitical plan where the Trump administration is formulating the Indo-Pacific strategies, a tactical adjustment aiming to maintain and strengthen U.S. power in the eastern and southern part of Eurasia to "rebalance the power in the Asia-Pacific region." At the core of the strategy is a military framework supported by the "close alliance" of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, partly to hold back China's development. Maintaining the military power of Taiwan is consistent with broader U.S. foreign policy in the region, and so there are practical reasons for the U.S. to facilitate exchanges between officials of the two sides.

Foundations damaged

The wording of the Taiwan Travel Act is too obscure for formal legislation. Its core item, Section 3, titled "Sense of Congress; Statement of Policy," does not illustrate the specific duties and items to be implemented by the administrative sectors nor does it stipulate the supervisory procedures of Congress. Therefore, the act is more of a joint resolution than a statute that requires full and timely implementation by involved parties, and a statement of strategy from the U.S. under the cover of formal legislative procedure, allowing the administration greater freedom in its implementation. Thus, the outcomes of the act largely rely on decisions made by the White House and the U.S. Department of State on the basis of actual circumstances.

Whatever decisions Trump makes, the enactment of the Taiwan Travel Act is a sign that the U.S. Government may adjust its one-China policy, a move that severely violates the principles enshrined in the three China-U.S. communiqués and the promises made by the U.S. administration in accordance with international law. In effect, it has gone even further than the Taiwan Relations Act. The U.S. has reinterpreted the one-China policy in a unilateral manner, severely damaging the political foundation of China-U.S. relations. If the Trump administration moves to implement the Taiwan Travel Act and step up U.S. relations with the island, it will set yet another bad example of its domestic law taking precedence over international law, potentially encouraging plots for "Taiwan independence," and complicating the political situation across the Taiwan Straits.

By signing the Taiwan Travel Act, Trump has created more trouble for his administration. He must learn that the situation has changed, and that the Taiwan question is no longer a balancing act to maintain the status quo. China and the United States are far more intertwined in terms of mutual benefits and interests than they were when the two countries first developed diplomatic relations. The U.S. needs to adjust its policies accordingly, by embracing a rising China and the transformation of the security situation in East Asia, rather than fighting against this trend. The Trump administration needs to think of the consequences these actions will have on China-U.S. relations and the political landscape of the Taiwan Straits.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a researcher at the Pangoal Institution

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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