(Analysis) The Taiwan Policy Act: The Showdown between the US and China?

Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖
Source: iStock

The Taiwan Policy Act (TPA) is the most comprehensive bill introduced by the U.S. Congress since the enactment of the Taiwan Relation Act, the foundational legislature of the US-Taiwan unofficial relation. Its contention length and integrity are more complex than the combination of the Taiwan Relation Act, the Taiwan Travel Act and the Taiwan Assurance Act. The TPA’s aim is to amend the 1979 Taiwan Relation Act and is intended to be the most thorough overhaul of US-Taiwan relations. However, this legislation may overturn the current Sino-US diplomatic relation and may lead to a military showdown between Washington and Beijing over the issue of Taiwan. Presumably, the former will also have a massive impact on Cross-Strait relations, potentially leading to direct military conflict between Beijing and Taipei.

Legislative Background

The TPA was introduced by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham. Both sponsors are very senior senators, with Sen. Menendez chairing of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and Sen. Graham being a ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. The fact that they are sponsoring this bill means that there is a high degree of bipartisan consensus on the Taiwan issue. Prior to the proposal, the two senators, along with bipartisan lawmakers, visited Taiwan on April 15th. They met with Tawianese President Tsai Ing-wen at the Office of the President.

Left: Senator Lindsay Graham (R.), Right: Senator Robert Menendez (D.). Source: Wikipedia Common Photos

The bill was initially scheduled for review on August 3rd, 2022, but was postponed due to Senate’s priority to approve Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO. Of course, Pelosi’s visit to Taipei on August 2nd was a further reason to postpone the review. On September 14th, 2022, the U.S. Congress convened, and the Senate scheduled the TPA as the first bill to review which showcased American political and military support for Taiwan as a bipartisan cause.

Menendez published an article, This Is How the US Will Stand With Taiwan, in New York Times on August 3rd. He wrote: “We saw the warning signs for Ukraine in 2014 and failed to take action that might have deterred further Russian aggression. We cannot afford to repeat that mistake with Taiwan.” He then continued “if we do nothing, then we must be comfortable with effectively ceding Taiwan by letting China continue its unabated military, economic and diplomatic bullying campaign.” These two phrases clearly point out the central theme of the TPA that on the issue of Taiwan, the U.S. will not sit by and do nothing.

The Nature and Key Points of the Taiwan Policy Act

High-ranked officer of Taiwan’s Armed Forces salutes President Tsai Ing-wen at a ceremony at headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On January 1st, 1970, the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America formally established diplomatic relations, and at the same time, the Washington announced that it had severed diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, terminated the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, and withdrawn U.S. troops from Taiwan. To maintain its unofficial relationship with Taipei, the Taiwan Relations Act was passed by the House and the Senate on March 28th and 29th, respectively, and signed into law by President Carter on April 10th. At the beginning of the Taiwan Relations Act, it states clearly that the purpose of the act is “to help maintain peace, security, stability in Western Pacific and to promote the foreign policy of the United States by authorizing the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, and for other purposes.” As the legal basis of US-Taiwan unofficial relations, the Taiwan Relations Act is a non-political and non-military law, and it deals only with transactional exchanges between the people of the U.S. and the people of Taiwan.

Seemingly, the TPA now seems to implement political and military parts. According the the act, Washington will “support the security of Taiwan and its right to self-determination, and for other purposes.” Such language has never appeared in any previous U.S. laws or executive orders, from the Taiwan Relations Act to the Six Assurances. According to the U.S. relations with Taiwan Fact Sheet, the U.S. stands neutral on the issue of Taiwan, opposing any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side and does not support Taiwan’s independence. However, “to support Taiwan’s right to self-determination” will change the U.S.’s current neutral position.

The second part of the bill points out and emphasizes the nature of the bill as it emphasizes the “Implementation of An Enhanced Defense Partnership Between the United States and Taiwan.” The word, implementation, shows that the nature of this bill is a compulsive rather than an authorization bill, implying that the law under this part is legally compulsory. As such, the U.S. executive agency has to implement what the TPA decrees. The third section of the bill aims to “Countering People’s Republic of China Aggression and Influence Campaigns.” The fourth section of the bill aims to help Taipei to join international organizations.” The latter sections discusses the US-Taiwan economy, culture, and education.

Section of Politics

The title of the first part is “United States Policy Toward Taiwan.” It includes two sections that may cause controversies if it gets passed: Sec. 102. “Treatment of The Government of Taiwan” and Sec. 103. “Taiwan Symbols of Sovereignty.” Sec. 102 is sensitive because it removes restrictions on U.S. and Taiwan officials’ interactions. Under the current unwritten practice, and because the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, U.S. officials are not permitted to interact with Taiwanese officials in official U.S. settings. It’s conventional for officials to meet in plain clothes only in informal settings. This bill is intended to legally break that restriction. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. referred to Taipei as the “Taiwan Authority,” while the TPA changed the name to the “Taiwan Government.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman participate in the launch event for the Office of China Coordination (known as China House), at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., Source: U.S. Department of State via Flickr.

Sec. 103 is a step closer with more details to the extent of Sec. 102 and therefore it will cause more controversies. Sec. 103 covers the code of wearing government uniforms, the exercise of government-sponsored ceremonies (such as National Day of ROC), and the appearance of the “Republic of China” (symbol of sovereignty) on the Department of State website. If this bill passed, the symbols of Taiwan’s sovereignty would not be subject to any U.S. government restrictions when Taiwan officials or diplomats participate in U.S. government-sponsored events. These symbols include the flag of Taiwan and the insignia of its military and government. This means that Taiwan can officially hold raising flag ceremony at Twin Oaks in the U.S. during the national day which the U.S. government usually prevents from happening. Moreover, Taiwan would be able to display its flag outside of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECCRO) in D.C., the de facto embassy of Taiwan in the U.S. Taiwan’s military personnel would also be permitted to wear military uniform and enter the Pentagon. All of these are not allowed at present.

In addition, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office will be renamed to Taiwan Representative Office and the nomination of the representative of the American Institution in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto American embassy in Taiwan, needs to be confirmed by the Senate. The opening of the Taiwanese Representative Office in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius triggered a diplomatic crisis between China and Lithuania. Considering the global influence and position of the U.S., the crisis caused by the renaming of TECRO in D.C. will be far greater than that of Lithuania.

Section of Military

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the “Mighty Shrikes” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 94, takes off from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet via Flickr.

After talking about politics, the TPA will also reform the Washington’s military relationship with Taipei. Sen. Menendez believes that Taiwan is in great danger if the U.S. does not accelerate its military deployment to Taiwan by 2025. His sense of urgency for time has driven him to expedite his review of this bill. As such, the TPA is intended to assist Taiwan to regulate, as well as, monitor Taipei’s military implementation. However, this bill does not change the U.S. strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan.

In all, the bill indicates the U.S.’s intention to intervene in Taiwan’s military affairs, but hesitates to answer the question of whether the U.S. will send troops to defend Taipei. The military part of the bill is called “Title II: Implementation of an Enhanced Defense Partnership Between The United States and Taiwan.” This part first requires the U.S. to have a forward plan for its military strategy for Taiwan and a strategic assessment of it. This means that the U.S. requires the U.S. Department of Defense and the State Department to report to Congress annually. To be able to submit these reports, the Washington needs to send personnel to Taiwan every year to understand the situation. Under the Taiwan Relation Act, arms sales to Taiwan must be limited to a defensive nature. However, “Sec. 201 Amendments to the Taiwan Policy Act” breaks this constraint. It provides for the sale of weapons to Taiwan that help deter the PLA. This is tantamount to unlocking U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, as offensive weapons can provide a deterrent effect. “Sec. 2o2 Anticipation Planning and Annual Review” contains forward planning, plus annual assessments of the U.S. defense strategy in Taiwan in the next 10 years. These assessments includes Taiwan’s current service and short-term military strength (including reserves) and U.S. readiness for the cross-strait military conflict; a detailed strategy for Taiwan to resist PLA aggression; an assessment of the cost of U.S. military intervention in the cross-strait military conflict; and the establishment of some short-term indicators of PLA force against Taiwan.

“Sec. 204 Taiwan Security Assistance Initiative” requires Taipei to develop of asymmetric military capabilities. This echoes a point made by Taiwan’s General Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明), Taiwan’s formal Chief of Staff. The U.S. believes that Taiwan has a limited military budget. PLA’s budget is 17 times of Taiwan’s. Taiwan should invest its limited funds in small military equipment to fight a protracted war. Under Sec. 204 (h), the U.S. aims to provide Taiwan with military financing and appropriations. The financing part is the part that the U.S. is going to designate Taiwan to buy. Taipei has already used up its special defense budget in the purchase of the F16-V, and the special budget has been budgeted twice. This year’s defense budget plus the special budget is 580 billion NTD, and the U.S. still thinks this is not enough.

The U.S. also opposes Taipei’s development of military programs that take a long time to develop, such as submarine ships. The U.S. believes that large military programs are not necessary for Taiwan. Sec. 209 asks the U.S. to prioritize the transfer of surplus weapons to Taiwan due to a fear of Beijing attacking Taiwan in the next five years. In the end, Sec. 213 lists Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally, of which the U.S. has 19 major non-NATO allies. The advantage of being a major non-NATO ally is that it offer Taipei access to weapons components made by America’s European allies, such as Sweden and Germany. Some European allies are reluctant to provide weapon components to Taiwan because of their diplomatic relationship with Beijing. However, by including Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally, these factors can be significantly reduced.

The Impacts of the Taiwan Policy Act

The TPA offers a remarkable shift in Sino-US relations, in fact, one can argue that this legislation can completely dismantle Washington’s One-China policy. Specially, it is important to assess how China will react to the TPA because of the Taiwan card that Washington will have, essentially providing the U.S. with a bargaining chip with Beijing. If Beijing does not react drastically to the passage of this bill, the U.S. will likely be able to further strengthen its relationship with Taiwan in the future as it will ratify a modified status quo. However, on the other hand, if Beijing reacts too aggressive, it could lead to a cross-strait war.

“U.S. leaders should therefore embrace those parts of Taiwan Policy Act that would help Taiwan economically or militarily… Substantive support of this sort is therefore necessary. And it should be the top priority of the Taiwan Policy Act. After all, embracing symbolism before substance would risk putting the cart before the horse.”

Former Deputy Secretary of State to George W. Bush, Richard Armitage, wrote in his article “Getting The Taiwan Policy Act Right,”

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(Analysis) The Taiwan Pol…

by Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖 time to read: 9 min