U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 19-hour visit to Taiwan on August 2, the first since Newt Gingrich visited as speaker in 1997, aggravated already heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. Since her visit, its wisdom has been questioned by many. The delegation was preceded by a public display of lack of coordination between Pelosi and the Biden administration, which may have factored into China’s decision to follow the visit with the largest military exercises yet around Taiwan.
Congressional delegations are routine within the guidelines of U.S. engagement with Taiwan, but these visits never fail to draw protest from China. Of course, the United States has no obligation to make foreign policy decisions based on Beijing’s potential reaction. Still, while these delegations can be certainly symbolic gestures to show support for Taiwan and the strong Taiwan-U.S. relationship, there are other activities that can have more substantial impact on strengthening Taiwan-U.S. relations.
For instance, Washington and Taipei launched the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade on June 1. The initiative, with the goal of reaching a trade agreement between Washington and Taipei, will contribute to facilitating deeper, reciprocal engagement in the areas of economics and trade between the two as Taiwan seeks to solidly connect with partners in the global economy, including the United States.
In addition to the military exercises after the Pelosi visit, Beijing also used import bans on selected Taiwanese goods in an attempt to hurt Taiwan economically. Taiwan’s resiliency against such attempts at coercion depends on robust trade relations with other partners, but Taiwan is still frequently excluded for political reasons from multilateral arrangements, such as the CPTPP trade pact and the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The August 21 announcement by the U.S. Trade Representative that Taiwan-U.S. trade negotiations will begin this fall is a sign of the growing awareness in Washington of the economic pressures that Taiwan faces from Beijing.
Efforts to create a solid mechanism for coordination in various emergencies is another area of potential. As China’s threats against Taiwan have been increasing in recent years, it is more important than ever for the U.S. to build cooperation with Taiwan that reinforces regional security. The People’s Liberation Army blockade exercises that immediately followed the Pelosi visit were a manifestation of Beijing’s will to use more aggressive actions to intimidate Taiwan. Also, considering China’s recent publication of a white paper on Taiwan that explicitly refuses to renounce the use of force, the Taiwan Strait will likely see such exercises again.
Direct security cooperation is not within the scope of Washington’s Taiwan Relations Act, which defines the unofficial Taiwan-U.S. relationship. However, unofficial forms of cooperation that will allow the U.S. and Taiwan to improve cooperation in difficult situations such as natural disasters and emergencies at sea will help better prepare for other types of emergencies as well. Such cooperation might take forms similar to the Taiwan-U.S. Coast Guard Working Group, which was established by MOU in 2021 to explore how these two law enforcement agencies might communicate and share information.
Moreover, the United States and Taiwan can work together in resisting forms of gray zone coercion, which fall below the threshold of conflict, such as cybersecurity. With Taiwan a regular target of cyberattacks, cybersecurity is key to protecting Taiwan’s critical infrastructure and technology sectors. The 2021 Taiwan-U.S. Cybersecurity Cooperation Strategy Forum is an example of how the United States and Taiwan can share best practices and protection against cyberattacks.
These recommendations do not preclude future congressional delegations, especially ones that proceed without fanfare, but there needs to be a greater awareness that when China decides to retaliate against symbolic U.S. actions toward Taiwan such as delegations, Taiwan bears the brunt of their immediate impact. Instead of demonstrating support for Taiwan with high-ranking visits that are destined to be highly publicized, forcing Beijing to react, Washington should funnel its support for Taiwan through working-level cooperation mechanisms that will have more meaningful impact in supporting Taiwan.