On September 15, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee overwhelmingly approved the Taiwan Policy Act for further review by the U.S. Senate. Since the bill was first introduced, the majority of the discussion about it has concerned its defense aspects, which, if it passes as currently written, would represent the most significant and overarching change to the United States’ Taiwan policy since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
If passed, the bill would allocate $6.5 billion in foreign military assistance to Taiwan. It calls for a sweeping investment in the Taiwanese military, and more specifically its defensive weapons capabilities, with the U.S. promising to provide resources for both land- and sea-based attacks such as long-range precision fires and anti-ship cruise missiles. The bill also calls for joint task forces and joint training programs to be established between the U.S. and Taiwan to manage the situation in the Taiwan Strait and deter China from interfering with the status quo.
Aside from military affairs, the Taiwan Policy Act also includes provisions for improved cultural and economic exchange, an aspect of the bill that so far has managed to evade media attention. Though far less dramatic than the major weapons investments and deals, these provisions have the power to bring about a new era of Taiwanese-American diplomacy. These include the Act’s proposed establishment of a Taiwan Fellowship Program for U.S. government officials.
These fellowships were first proposed under the Taiwan Fellowship Act that was introduced in 2021, and has since been well received in both the U.S. and Taiwan. In particular, it has earned the approval of Tsai Ing-wen and her administration, as it falls in line with many of the goals of her administration – including when it comes to educational exchange.
Taiwan and the U.S. already have scholastic ties as a result of the Taiwan Fellowship Program established by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). This program provides stipends for foreign nationals who are professors, associate professors, or doctoral candidates specializing in cross-strait relations or East Asian studies to pursue advanced studies at Taiwanese universities.
Though similarly named, this fellowship and that which would be established by the Taiwan Fellowship Act are quite different. MOFA’s Taiwan Fellowship Program is open to citizens of all countries and is focused on scholars, whereas the program that would be established by the Taiwan Fellowship Act would be offered only to current U.S. government employees and is focused on government-to-government exchange and training over advanced scholarship.
Originally, the Taiwan Fellowship Act was its own freestanding bill, aiming to establish a government exchange program between the United States and Taiwan modeled after the Mansfield Fellowship, which has established a similar program in Japan. The program would allow for qualifying government workers to move to Taiwan for up to two years where they would participate in intensive Mandarin language study as well as studying “the people, history, and political climate on Taiwan.” After a year of study, fellows would be assigned to work in Taiwanese government-affiliated offices or NGOs.
This bill has since been absorbed into a few other congressional bills such as the America COMPETES Act and, most recently, the Taiwan Policy Act. As it stands, different versions of the Taiwan Fellowship Act have passed as part of different versions of the America COMPETES Act in both the House and the Senate, which is currently under bicameral review.
For many decades when Americans were blocked from the People’s Republic of China, China experts were not only trained to understand China itself, but also the entire Sinophone world, including Taiwan. However, since the opening of Chinese borders to Americans, cross-strait understanding in the U.S. government has become rare. This is starting to change, and the Taiwan Fellowship Act would give momentum to existing trends.
As tensions between the U.S. and China have increased, so has demand for Mandarin speakers in the U.S. government, as well as interest in learning Mandarin among American citizens. Though China used to be the preference for most people wishing to study Mandarin, since COVID-19 many have been shifting toward Taiwan. This bill would further the attraction of Taiwan as a desirable place to learn Chinese, not only as a democracy and a U.S. ally, but also as a hotspot of Chinese culture. This bill therefore has the potential of furthering an existing trend of U.S. experts traveling to Taiwan. It could revolutionize Taiwan-U.S. relations by bringing in a new generation of East Asia experts who understand both sides of the strait and encouraging cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwanese governments.
Outside of its benefits as a cultural training program, the Taiwan Fellowship, should the bill pass, would represent not only recognition of Taiwan as a thriving democracy in East Asia with similar significance to U.S. policy as Japan, it would also become a way to prevent Americans from forgetting that Taiwan has a value of its own. It is often the case that Taiwan is only spoken of in the context of China, but it is vital that the global community, and particularly the U.S., avoids treating Taiwan as a tool to use against China. Instead, Taiwan must be recognized for its value as a model democracy in East Asia and importance to the entire Indo-Pacific region.
This program would be a vital step in that direction. It has the potential to overhaul Taiwan-U.S. relations as we know it. Because of this, it is important that the bill’s key supporters, such as the Western Pacific Fellowship Program and the Taiwanese-American Foundation, continue to lobby for this bill as it reaches its final review stages in order to protect the future of intergovernmental and educational cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan.