It’s been close to a week since President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law.
Before the ink dried on Trump’s desk, China responded with outrage to the Act, even going so far as to implicitly threaten military action in response. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the day after the Act was signed "We urge the US side to correct its mistake stop pursuing any official ties with Taiwan or improving its current relations with Taiwan in any substantive way." The Chinese embassy in Washington followed by issuing its own statement saying that certain clauses of the legislation "severely violate...the political foundation of the China-US relationship."
Why the incendiary rhetoric?
First, it’s important to understand exactly what this new Act entails. The Taiwan Travel Act doesn’t precisely contain any legal requirements, more like strong suggestions. The text of the legislation opens by explaining the bill’s purpose to “encourage” visits between United States and Taiwanese officials “at all levels” of government. Section II of the Act states “Visits to a country by United States Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials are an indicator of the breadth and depth of ties between the United States and such country,” and that “relations between the United States and Taiwan have suffered from insufficient high-level communication due to the self-imposed restrictions that the United States maintains on high-level visits with Taiwan.”
As a solution to remedy these “suffering relations,” the bill provides the “Sense of Congress” on the issue, a legislative term used to formally express opinions about subjects of national interest or security. According to the Act, Congress feels that it should be the policy of the United States to “allow officials at all levels of the United States Government,” including “Cabinet-level” officials, “national security personnel,” and other “executive branch officials,” to make formal visits to Taiwan in order to meet their Taiwanese counterparts. The act also allows “high-level officials of Taiwan” to “freely enter the United States” and requires that “appropriate respect for the dignity of such officials” be demonstrated upon their arrival.
So what are the outcomes we can expect from the passing of this Act into law? This depends on which direction the US will lean in its already delicate balancing act it plays in its policy toward Taiwan.
The dual position the US has taken on Taiwan goes back to the era immediately following the Second World War when the US first adopted what came to be known as the “One China” policy, recognizing PRC as the only legitimate governing body of China. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan that America formally codified a positive stance on Taiwan. In his famous “Six Assurances” Reagan made clear that at least some recognition of Taiwan would be an important part of US foreign policy. In brief, these assurances established two main points: (a) the US would not push any policy regarding Taiwanese sovereignty, and (b) that the US would continue to provide weapons and military aid to Taiwan indefinitely.
The Travel Act was especially troubling to Beijing considering the growing influence of voices in Congress over the past several years promoting full recognition of Taiwan. China’s concern was only bolstered by the fact that the recent bill passed both the House and the Senate unanimously.
Ultimately, the implications of this bill are still up in the air. As many observers have pointed out, since the Act only encourages increased ties without actually defining what steps to take, the law will only be as important as Trump makes it. The administration will have to tread lightly. China has already signaled its opposition to the bill is serious, and the eluding by officials to an armed response to the Act should not be taken as an empty threat. China has a long history of openly harassing Taiwan militarily. As recently a December, China launched a large aerial “patrol” of bombers and fighter jets over the waterways to its east, including the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. The signing of the Act along with other recent American “provocations” such as Trump’s signaled intent to send US warships on visits to Taiwan, could collectively be used by China as an excuse to revert to these actions.
The signing of the Taiwan Travel Act puts the U.S. at a junction. The Act could spur a huge escalation in the tensions between PRC and the United States, resulting in anything ranging from tit-for-tat diplomatic actions to military confrontation. Alternatively, the administration could take no action on the bill, and the whole thing could blow over by next week. With any luck, cooler heads will prevail.