On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing the sale of four U.S. frigates to Taiwan, while also officially reaffirming U.S. support for the Taiwan Relations Act days before the 35th anniversary of that legislation. The bill, HR 3470, began with a section underlining the importance of TRA before moving on the specifics of the latest arms sale to Taiwan. “The Taiwan Relations Act has been instrumental in maintaining peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific since its enactment in 1979,” says the bill’s first clause.
The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, passed with “overwhelming bipartisan support,” according to a Foreign Affairs Committee press release. In a statement, Royce said that “America’s support for Taiwan has allowed this island nation to realize its full potential.” He added, “It is now more important than ever that we reaffirm our strong commitment to Taiwan and the Taiwan Relations Act.” Accordingly, the newly-passed bill contained a clause wherein Congress “reaffirms its unwavering commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act.”
HR 3470 also authorized the sale to Taiwan of four decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigates, the USS Taylor, USS Gary, USS Carr, and USS Elrod. The four vessels, commissioned in 1984 and 1985, can support both surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. Before the transfer of these vessels becomes official, however, the House bill will also need to pass the Senate and be approved by President Obama.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the passage of HR 3470 in a statement, expressing its gratitude for the move. The statement said the bill displayed Congress’ bipartisan support for “trust and friendship” towards Taiwan. The opposition party DPP also weighed in, with Chariman Su Tseng-chang calling the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan and U.S. human rights advocacy “indispensable beacons of hope to Taiwan.”
With Thursday marking the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, this week is a time of reflection on the TRA—and not just for Congress. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou gave a speech on the subject via videoconference at an event at DC’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. He called the TRA “a landmark piece of legislation that has laid the cornerstone of the robust relationship between the Republic of China and the United States.”
Ma also commented that when he came to office in 2008 it was his “top priority to improve Taiwan’s relationship with the U.S.” Ma attributed the improvement in cross-strait relations to strong ties between Taiwan and the U.S.: “With U.S. support, Taiwan has been able to improve cross-strait relations and confidently engage Beijing from a position of strength.” This has generally been the U.S. position as well: that providing Taiwan with defensive arms can increase the island’s ability to deal with the mainland on an equal footing.
Needless to say, China does not share this view. Chinese scholars believe that, since cross-strait relations are at an all-time high, there is no need for further arms sales. Of course, China also believes such sales are a direct violation of the one-China policy and in violation of previous U.S. promises made in joint communiques with Beijing. A spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense told the press back in March, “We urge the U.S. side to adhere faithfully to the one-China policy … and stop arm sales to Taiwan immediately.”
Accordingly, China responded angrily to the passage of HR 3470. A statement from the Ministry of National Defense complained that “The U.S. side ignored China’s strong opposition, and insisted on passing the bill pushing weapons sales to Taiwan.” The statement further warned that the act “doubtless will seriously interfere in and damage the development of Sino-U.S. military ties and the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”
The timing was especially awkward, with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel just finishing up a trip to China designed to boost military ties between the two countries. In the past, mil-to-mil relations have been the major targets of Chinese anger over arms sales. In response to a 2010 $6.4 billion arms sale, the first of Obama’s presidency, China refused to allow then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to visit China as part of a larger Asia tour. Should the bill move forward through the Senate and by signed by Obama, China might chose to cut off mil-to-mil contacts in retaliation.
Interestingly, though, the response from China treats the bill as a done deal, even though the bill has currently only passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The statement from China’s defense ministry elides the distinction between Congress and the White House by accusing the “U.S. side” of ignoring Chinese opposition. Such complaints would have been directed more to the executive branch’s foreign policy apparatus than to Congress itself. Since the U.S. Congress is historically very supportive of Taiwan (and very critical of China, especially on human rights issues), it’s dangerous for China to equate Congressional action with White House policy, especially since Congress today is notorious for resisting Obama’s wishes.