Just as the fire lit by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and China’s predictable military retaliations has started to fade, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is revving up its blowtorch. The Committee last week advanced the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 (TPA), proposed by Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham in June, clearing it to move on to the Senate floor.
The bill is dominated by a values-based alignment with Taiwan and opposition to China that adheres to tropes of superpower struggle. These frameworks serve the narrative needs of hawks in both the U.S. and China. For its part, the leading Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan has also relied on the rhetoric of democracy and freedom, and its relationship with the U.S., in its messaging on cross-strait relations. But Taiwan should matter to U.S. lawmakers principally because of what it is rather than what it is not.
The United States should pursue Taiwan policy that provides tangible and well-funded progress on trade, innovation, technology, and cultural and linguistic exchanges. Given Beijing’s permanent obsession with seizing Taiwan, any U.S. policy that makes China happy is almost surely a failure. But there is an important difference between rising to the occasion to support a nation in need and taking action designed solely to upset a shared adversary.
The TPA has language on strengthening trade, which could offer real benefits to Americans and Taiwanese, and would irk China’s leaders – but for a purpose. (The House Ways and Means Committee recently held a hearing on Taiwan trade.) It would look into establishing an Infectious Disease Monitoring Center through the American Institute in Taiwan, promote Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, and strengthen people-to-people ties by funding a fellowship for Americans to travel to Taiwan to learn Mandarin and study the region. These are the best parts of the bill.
Elsewhere, the TPA proposes that the U.S. treat Taiwan “as though it were designated a major non-NATO ally” and renames Taiwan’s representative offices so they use the name of the country rather than the capital city. It also includes sections dedicated to “deterrence measures” against China and “countering PRC’s coercion and influence campaigns.” When appropriate, these efforts against the Chinese government should be undertaken in a multilateral fashion that incorporates input from civil society, especially Taiwan’s – and not in a bill that calls itself the Taiwan Policy Act. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is mentioned nine times, mostly in descriptions of potential sanctions against party officials, while Taiwan’s leading party isn’t mentioned at all. Instead, the “government in Taiwan” and the U.S. are described as having “no restrictions on bilateral interactions.”
Under Biden, the U.S. has spearheaded a competitive bifurcation between autocracies and democracies, where Taiwan crucially counts as the latter. In excessively emphasizing “shared values,” the TPA demonstrates the heightened self-interest the United States’ Taiwan policy has assumed as China has become a competitor, contender, techno-authoritarian regime, geopolitical rival, or straight up bad guy. It would be more worthwhile to craft a policy that responds directly to the mutual interests of Americans and Taiwanese, strengthening the relationship so it represents more than an exchange of weapons, applause for democracy, and opposition to Beijing.
The Taiwan Relations Act laid important groundwork for a Taiwan-U.S. relationship that operated outside the typical bilateral boundaries, since the U.S. had shifted its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China government in Taipei to the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing the same day it went into effect. The Soviet Union was the boogeyman, and U.S. appeals to China came in that context. Peace and security were the buzzwords in 1979, when China fought a border war with Vietnam and had just emerged from the devastating Cultural Revolution Mao waged until his death in 1976.
Deng Xiaoping had big plans for China’s economy, but it would be decades until the seeds he planted yielded the current U.S. outlook on China – that it is a rival economy, challenger for military and naval dominance in the Indo-Pacific, technological competitor, and uncomfortably influential in global institutions and in governments and civil societies throughout the developing world.
Fast forward to 2022, where everything China does or might do is seen as a direct threat to U.S. national security, and the TPA reflects this very clearly. “Regional peace and security” are no longer the paramount priorities; instead, this year’s bill emphasizes China’s authoritarian sins under Xi Jinping, who is directly quoted and mentioned by name twice.
Values, rather than security, are the driving force in this legislation. This is not subtle: The bill describes the Taiwan-U.S. relationship as “values-based.” A version of the word “democracy” appears 22 times, alongside terms like “rules-based international order,” “freedom of expression,” and the one-size-fits all “freedom.”
And when it comes to China-U.S. military competition, the TPA quite comfortably voices its foundational fear: “The PRC considers stifling the freedom of Taiwan as a critical and necessary step to displacing the United States as the preeminent military power in the Indo-Pacific.” The Chinese government’s effort to strip Taiwan of its sacrosanct freedom is thus framed as fundamentally a way to stick it to the United States.
This self-involved perspective distorts Beijing’s real aims vis-à-vis Taiwan, which are in fact based on its aggressively overreaching territorial claims that long predate any possible PRC attempt to overtake the U.S. as the major military power in the Pacific or anywhere else. The CCP’s claim over Taiwan is a nationalistic project that is rooted in domestic legitimacy. To the party, it’s about China’s “national rejuvenation,” China’s resilience to imperialist legacies, and China’s support for the CCP over the KMT – or any other past, possible, or future rival party. From China’s perspective, it’s about China; from the United States’ perspective, it’s about the United States.
Beijing is not blind to the geostrategic benefits that controlling Taiwan would offer, but framing those benefits – plus general authoritarianism – as the primary motivation misses the point. Amid the threats that characterize their daily lives, some living in Taiwan have advocated that Western observers take on their relative “chill” and listen to Taiwanese perspectives on Taiwan issues.
The Taiwan Policy Act is indicative of a broader foreign policy shift. The rapid, wholesale, and bipartisan securitization of the United States’ policy and prerogative on China in recent years has seeped into its relationship with Taiwan, a state with much to gain from a hardline U.S. stance on China, even as that approach relegates Taiwan to the sidelines on negotiations of a conflict that, if it ever occurs, would unfold within its borders, with its people on the frontlines, and its way of life on the chopping block.