Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

Would Bernie Sanders Defend Taiwan?

Putting a recent “60 Minutes” bombshell into context from the senator’s long legislative history with Taiwan.

By Kuang-shun Yang for
Would Bernie Sanders Defend Taiwan?
Credit: Flickr/ Lorie Shaull

Senator Bernie Sanders is famed for his “Democratic Socialism” platform that highlight domestic policies, including Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, College for All, and so on. However, since the last Democratic Primary against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sanders has frequently been asked to expand on his foreign policy views as well.

A recent interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” may be the first time the general public heard Sanders talk at length about his views on many foreign policy issues. One moment that caught many people’s attention came when the host, Anderson Cooper, asked for Sanders’ view, as a potential commander-in-chief, should China take military action against Taiwan. Sanders responded straightforwardly: “I mean, I think we have got to make it clear to countries around the world that we will not sit by and allow invasions to take place, absolutely.”

It was an extraordinary commitment — it was the strongest support for Taiwan any U.S. presidential hopeful has expressed since George W. Bush. It’s remarkable that a frontrunner for the presidential nomination should demonstrate such clear support for Taiwan, which has long been a marginal topic in U.S. politics.

To many, “Bernie Sanders” and “Taiwan” may be an unlikely juxtaposition (although some close observers may know of Sander’s fondness for the island’s healthcare system). Considering Sanders’ long-held noninterventionist, if not pacifist, attitude toward U.S. defense policy, it is hard to connect Sanders to a U.S. intervention in the case of a Chinese invasion in Taiwan. Based on Sanders’ past records on issues related to Taiwan, the commitment he showed on “60 Minutes” is certainly a breakthrough.

Having served in Congress for nearly three decades, Sanders showed his tendencies in foreign policy early on, with his opposition to granting permanent Most Favored Nation status to China in the 1990s. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a similar stance after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown (and the Trump administration may now concur, given the ongoing U.S.-China trade war). In addition, Sanders has continuously shown his commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter after the end of official U.S.-Taiwan relationship in 1979. When in the House, Sanders reaffirmed his commitment to the TRA twice through roll-call voting. In November 2017, before President Donald Trump’s Asia trip, Sanders along with other 35 Senate colleagues from both parties signed a joint letter calling for the president to honor the U.S. commitment to Taiwan based on the TRA.

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While the TRA stipulates the preservation of friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations, the centerpiece of the law is the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security and the stability of the western Pacific. Such a security partnership is often embodied in U.S. arms sales meant to maintain Taiwan’s “sufficient self-defense capability.” Sanders may have shown his commitment to the TRA by supporting the Department of Defense’s senior officer official educational programs with Taiwan, but when it comes to more direct defense support he has been less sympathetic. In the three occasions of roll-call voting related to arms sales to Taiwan, Sanders has been a consistent naysayer.

In 1997, a year after China’s provocative missile exercises in the Taiwan Strait, then-Rep. Sanders voted nay on the United States-Taiwan Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Cooperation Act, which aimed to incorporate Taiwan into the U.S. theater missile defense (TMD) system. The bill passed the House by a vote of 301-116 but failed to gain traction in the Senate. In 2000, Rep. Sanders opposed the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, an ambitious bill that pursued establishment of personnel exchange programs, direct communication between U.S.-Taiwan military commands, and full and timely sharing of defense articles and services sales data (former Vice President Joe Biden, then the chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also boycotted this bill, which also passed the House but stalled in the Senate). In 2011, Sanders rejected an amendment that urged the Obama administration to sell F-16C/D fighter jets to Taiwan. After being rejected in the Senate, the F-16 sale was delayed for eight years until approved by the Trump administration in 2019.

Despite being a naysayer to some U.S. arms sales proposals to Taiwan, Sanders still shows his support for Taiwan from time to time, especially when impressed by the island nation’s progressive policies. In 2019, Sanders co-sponsored a resolution that praises Taiwan as “the first place in Asia to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.” To promote his student debt forgiveness plan, Sanders mentioned Taiwan along with other seven places as a role model to the U.S.

Sanders is, in particular, a fan of Taiwan’s single-payer health care system. Not only did he repeatedly use Taiwan as a successful example to justify his Medicare for All platform on social media, he even invited Dr. Ching-chuan Yeh, Taiwan’s former minister of health, to a congressional hearing to share Taiwan’s experience in implementing its health care system. And seeing the constant Chinese suppression of Taiwan’s international space, Sanders has voted four times in support of Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization and the annual World Health Assembly.

For years, it has been a myth that U.S. support for Taiwan is dominated by Republican politicians. It’s true that prominent Republican figures like former Senator John McCain, Senator Marco Rubio, and former National Security Advisor John Bolton often translate their anti-communist ideology into Taiwan-friendly policies. This impression culminated when then-President-elect Trump picked up a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, the first such conversation since 1979. However, we should never forget those notable Democrats like former Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Bob Menendez, or Speaker Pelosi who are not shy about celebrating Taiwan’s democracy and calling for Taiwan’s rightful place in the international community. Seeing the success story of Taiwan’s democracy and the ever-growing assertiveness from China, support for Taiwan has become a bipartisan consensus in the United States.

Sanders may not be the most outstanding supporter of Taiwan the Democratic Party has ever seen in its presidential primary history. But with his admiration of many of Taiwan’s progressive policies, Sanders could begin to show more determination and concrete plans for the defense of Taiwan in his future campaign given the increasing threat of invasion from China.

Kuang-shun Yang is a co-founder of US Taiwan Watch.