American lawmakers have introduced a flurry of bills in the past two years to improve Taiwan’s defenses and raise its international exposure as legislators backed by President Donald Trump step up resistance against China, an old rival of Taipei, analysts say.
At least five pro-Taiwan bills have appeared in the U.S. Congress since February 2018, an unusually fast pace. It’s largely because President Trump has championed Taiwan’s cause for self-rule since his inauguration in 2017 amid spats with China over trade and geopolitics. China sees Taiwan as part of its territory, not as an independent state.
Legislators, influenced by a Taiwan lobby in Washington as well as anti-China sentiments among American voters, have made the most of Trump’s policy to get their bills signed into law, political observers believe. Trump’s predecessors focused more on maintaining ties with Beijing.
“As President Trump is so far the most pro-Taiwan U.S. president since de-recognition in 1979, Congress may want to send him as many Taiwan bills as possible, knowing that he'll actually sign them into law,” said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.
In 1979, the U.S. government severed diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of China, a fast-growing power at the time. Washington still recognizes Beijing but sustains strong informal relations with Taiwan. U.S. officials see the democratic island as one in a chain of democratic allies in East Asia.
“U.S.-Taiwan relations are right now in a mini-golden age, and the island's many supporters presumably want to make the most of it,” King said.
In February 2018, Congress approved the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages high-level government exchanges between Taipei and Washington. The same year it passed the Taiwan International Participation Act. The participation bill advocates that international organizations include Taiwan — despite China’s customary opposition.
Last year saw Congress approve the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, which directs the State Department to tell Congress about government moves aimed at strengthening Taiwan’s diplomatic relations “partners” in the Indo-Pacific.
In February this year, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz proposed a bill to undo a ban on Taiwanese diplomats and military personnel displaying Taiwan's official flag on U.S. government property. In May, Rep. Mike Gallagher introduced the Taiwan Defense Act to ensure the United States can help Taiwan resist China’s “aggressive military build-up” by maintaining the ability to fend off a Chinese invasion.
Legislators are making up for lost time, some scholars say.
They felt that “for many years [the United States] was doing too much to limit itself in its relations with Taiwan,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center research institution in Honolulu.
Congress members feel too that “since China has generally acted in bad faith, Washington is no longer as concerned as before about avoiding actions that will antagonize China,” Roy said.
Lawmakers are sighting Taiwan because China cannot strike it without risking military conflict — fallout that analysts believe officials in Beijing are unready to absorb.
“I think there is a tendency to focus legislations on Taiwan, because Taiwan is the one issue that China cannot really fight back,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center research organization in Washington.
Chinese officials oppose pro-Taiwan legislation in Washington and urge the United States to stick to its “One-China principle" that forbids formal diplomatic recognition of the island.
China has seen Taiwan as its own since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost and fled to the island. China resents other countries for aiding Taiwan’s military or elevating diplomatic ties.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment Monday on the U.S. legislation.
Taiwan-U.S. relations have been guided since 1979 mainly by a single law, the Taiwan Relations Act. The act lets Washington provide Taiwan arms and “maintain the capacity” to resist force or “coercion” that threaten Taiwan. The defense act introduced in May would “restore the original intent” of the 1979 law, Roy said.
Trump and American lawmakers hope the recent bills as a whole will press China for “concessions”, said Alex Chiang, associate professor of international politics at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “China has to take notice and China may need to do some action in order for the United States to stop this kind of activity,” Chiang said.
Although language in the newer bills commits Washington to little specific action, the laws are written in a way to reflect changes in Taiwanese people’s “identity” and “aspirations” since the 1979 law took effect, Sun said. Taiwanese citizens told government polls last year they want their island to remain self-ruled — after Chinese President Xi Jinping advocated unification.
“All these more recent reactions are really to protect Taiwan against the PRC aggression,” Sun said.