Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

Trump and the TAIPEI Act

Insights from Russell Hsiao

Mercy A. Kuo
Trump and the TAIPEI Act
Credit: Official White House photo by D. Myles Cullen

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Russell Hsiao – executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum – is the 233rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the essence of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act.

There are three essential components to the TAIPEI Act: (1) sense of Congress, (2) declaration of U.S. policy, and (3) legislatively-directed obligation on the executive branch to perform certain actions. In terms of the sense of Congress, the Bill advises the president to further strengthen bilateral trade and economic relations with Taiwan and its ties with other nations. The former, as offered in the context of the legislation’s broader scope, reflects the view that Taiwan’s economic space is integral to Taiwan’s international space. The Bill also advises the executive branch to maintain and strengthen Taiwan’s official diplomatic relationships as well as partnership with other countries by considering to increase or alter U.S. economic, security, and diplomatic engagements with those countries. As a further step to this measure, the Bill imposes a legislatively-directed obligation on the secretary of state to report to Congress on an annual basis what the executive branch is doing in accordance with this provision. This component of the law serves Congress’ oversight function of executive branch implementation of foreign policy. While these advisories do not establish a mandatory obligation on the executive branch, it’s worth remembering that Congress has the inherent power of the purse, and it could hold appropriations when it considers appropriate and warranted should Congress determine that the executive branch is not “faithfully” executing the law. In terms of a Congressional declaration of policy, the Bill sets out as objectives for U.S. policy to help Taiwan gain entry either as a member or observer into international organizations. These declarations of policy are conditional and based on an “as appropriate” determination by the executive branch.

Explain the strategic rationale behind President Trump’s decision to sign TAIPEI.

The passage and signing of the Act are in response to China’s aggressive diplomatic offensive campaign of poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic partners and obstructing Taiwan’s ability to participate in international organizations. When the Bill was first introduced by Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado in May 2019, Taiwan had already lost five diplomatic ties to Beijing since January 2016. While most provisions of the TAIPEI Act and other legislations do not establish mandatory obligations on the executive branch, they nonetheless contribute to broadening the foundation of Taiwan policy and reinforce key commitments of existing policy. In that sense, they expand the scope of Taiwan policy and also provide some broader oversight authorities for Congress, as a co-equal branch of government, to ensure that American interests and values as defined by the [Taiwan Relations Act] TRA and these complementary laws, such as the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) and the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA), are faithfully implemented by the executive branch in the current as well as successive administrations. Finally, the TAIPEI Act would have become law even if the president did not take any action. President Trump’s decision to sign the TAIPEI Act appears intended to show that it has the support of both branches of government, which is required for a strong and effective U.S. foreign policy.

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What is the impact of the TAIPEI Act on China and U.S.-China relations?

China is predictably unhappy with the TAIPEI Act since Beijing considers any efforts to maintain Taiwan’s unique status or expand Taiwan’s international space outside of its control as meddling in its internal affairs and a challenge to its “One China principle.” Yet, if Beijing continues to peel away Taiwan’s diplomatic partners unchecked, then it increases the probability that Taiwan — formally recognized as the Republic of China (ROC) — would eventually have zero diplomatic partners. The pace of this unwind and the approach to this scenario could lead to serious instability in the Taiwan Strait. In that situation, not only would the intent of such Chinese actions be clearly coercive, Taiwan’s leaders would be conceivably far less constrained by diplomatic norms and far less predictable. At the same time, popular frustration within Taiwan would likely rise as a result and would likely boil over with the Taiwanese public pushing for a referendum on independence. While tensions are set to increase between the United States and China against the backdrop of great power competition, the signing of the TAIPEI Act is an effort to maintain the status quo.

How does the TAIPEI Act help or hurt Taiwan’s international standing vis-à-vis China and the global community?

On balance, the legislation should help Taiwan’s international standing by reinforcing the policy of the United States to advocate for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations — and helping Taipei maintain or strengthen ties with other partners. Where the TAIPEI Act would perhaps be the most effective is in persuading and dissuading some of Taiwan’s 15 remaining diplomatic partners and other nondiplomatic partners: either [dissuading them] from switching ties to Beijing or [encouraging them in] strengthening their ties with Taiwan out of considerations for the U.S. altering its economic, security, and diplomatic engagements with these countries — some could even decide to establish diplomatic ties with Taipei. Where it could indirectly hurt Taiwan’s international standing is that Beijing may use the passage of the TAIPEI Act as further justification to turn the screws on Taipei as well as its diplomatic and nondiplomatic partners. This likely scenario will arguably play out not because of but in spite of the TAIPEI Act. Beijing has already indicated through its actions and statements toward Taiwan over the past four years that it was not interested in working with Taipei under the current administration and that it would intensify its pressure campaign unless Taipei conceded to its terms of cross-strait negotiations, with or without the TAIPEI Act.

Assess U.S. foreign policy implications of the TAIPEI Act.

The most important implication of TAIPEI Act on U.S. foreign policy will likely be in the longer term rather than in the immediate future. While support for Taiwan policy remains a bipartisan issue and has seen steady improvements in recent years — as evidenced by the fact that the TRA, ARIA, TTA, and TAIPEI Act are all bipartisan Congressional foreign policy initiatives — a robust legislative framework militates against the ebbs and flows that inevitably come with presidential transitions within a democracy and the possible effects that future presidents could have in attempting to limit ties with Taiwan so as not to anger China or even, as some have suggested in the past, abandoning Taiwan. When read together with the TRA, ARIA, and TTA, the TAIPEI Act builds out, through congressional initiative, a broader foundation for U.S. policy that imposes normative constraints on executive action toward Taiwan. Especially at a time when China has been on a full court press of squeezing Taiwan’s international space, it widens the aperture of U.S. policy options toward Taiwan and will last beyond this presidency.