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Who’s Behind the Quick Rise in US-Taiwan Relations

A demonstrator holds flags of Taiwan and the United States in support of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during an stop-over after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, U.S., January 14, 2017.
A demonstrator holds flags of Taiwan and the United States in support of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during an stop-over after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, U.S., January 14, 2017.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is scheduled to discuss her government’s foreign relations by video on a panel formed by the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. Diplomatic agreements between the United States and China prohibit formal, high-level Taiwan-U.S. encounters, and China is angered when it feels the United States is edging away from its deal.

Yet the Taiwanese leader's participation comes as no surprise. Informal U.S.-Taiwan relations have reached new highs under President Donald Trump over the past two years, and hundreds of people in Congress, American think tanks and U.S.-based political action committees have been laying a foundation for that resurgence in relations.

China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and threatened to take it by force if needed.

U.S.-based Taiwan advocates, American as well as Taiwanese, work daily with ideologically-motivated congress members to elevate Taiwan's relations with the United States despite opposition from China -- or because of it – observers say.

“I’ve never met a member of Congress who says ‘I don’t support Taiwan issues,’” said Coen Blaauw, executive director of the Washington-based Taiwan advocacy group Formosan Association for Public Affairs. He traveled to Taipei this week for meetings with senior Taiwanese ruling party members.

To sell Taiwan, he said, “we have the product of Taiwan independence, self-determination, and add to that, that also anti-China sentiment at the moment in Washington D.C. is at an all-time high,” Blaauw said.

Who’s elevating Taiwan

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party keeps a mission in the United States and gets additional backing from the Formosan Association for Public Affairs. At least two other groups act as political action committees to raise funds or push people in the U.S. government, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University.

The advocacy groups work closely with U.S. Congress members who prefer Taiwan over China because it’s democratic like the United States.

The Heritage Foundation, known for conservative public policy, is seen as particularly pro-Taiwan. One chief peer is the policy incubator Global Taiwan Institute. Think tanks invite powerful speakers to events and publish research such as freedom rankings.

Congressional supporters

For people in Congress, “to suppress China’s development, this is the main goal, and of course for those in office now, whether or not they have feelings for Taiwan, the historic record shows Taiwan is more friendly,” Huang said.

At least a half dozen U.S. senators and as many powerful people in the House of Representatives actively push for stronger U.S.-Taiwan ties now by introducing legislation or backing those bills in committee, Blaauw said.

Congress approved last year a bill encouraging more high-level visits based on a proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio. Cory Gardner, chairman of a Senate subcommittee on East Asia relations, spearheaded 2018 legislation to let the U.S. government downgrade relations with foreign governments that break diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China.

Steve Chabot, co-chairman of the House Congressional Taiwan Caucus, introduced a resolution last week challenging Beijing’s principle that it should rule Taiwan.

Trump on board

Some U.S. presidents prioritize relations with China because of its global economic weight, but they have all retained informal ties with Taiwan since Washington severed formal relations in 1979.

Congressional bills and lobbying efforts are improving U.S.-Taiwan relations now because Trump supports the cause, said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.

The government approved a $1.42 billion sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan in 2017, enraging Beijing. It has chastised China for “poaching” Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, King said. Trump and Tsai spoke by telephone in late 2016, after his election victory but before he took office.

Some of Trump’s aides also happen to like Taiwan. Before taking his current post, National security adviser John Bolton, argued for locating some U.S. troops from a Japanese base to Taiwan. U.S. governments consider Taiwan one in a chain of democratic friends in the Western Pacific.

Scholars say Trump favors Taiwan to remind China of his country’s broader geopolitical influence. Beijing and Washington have been locked in a thorny trade dispute since early 2018.

Tsai will probably “praise more connectivity with the United States” during this week’s panel discussion, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“The U.S. public, media, academia and Congress have long been friendly toward Taiwan,” King said. “The difference now is the executive branch. It all starts and ends at the top. When it comes to Taiwan, (Trump) has so far been the strongest U.S. president in recent memory.”