The Taiwan Travel Act — A Step Toward Reflecting Regional Reality
On March 16, President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law. Adopted by unanimous consent of both chambers of the U.S. Congress, this law “encourages visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials at all levels.” Given its bipartisan support and our nation’s close economic and strategic ties with Taipei, the law’s reception should have been unremarkable. Despite the fact that Taiwan is America’s 11th largest trading partner, high-level Taiwanese officials, including the island’s president, are only permitted layovers in the United States and on occasion even these have been forbidden.
The current perplexing policy and the controversy surrounding this seemingly innocuous law can be traced back to 1979 when the one-China principle became U.S. doctrine. At that time both the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China) and Taiwan claimed to represent China on the world stage. The United States offered official diplomatic recognition to the PRC in hopes that greater integration into western institutions would increase political and economic openness there. Any ties to Taiwan would remain “unofficial” as China insisted that Taiwan was a renegade province of the PRC. This outlook continues to this day as President Xi Jinping has pledged to “reunify” Taiwan with China during his tenure irrespective of the wishes of the island’s citizens. In keeping with the spirit of the one-China principle, the United States imposed rules on its conduct that are not codified in U.S. law. These self-imposed restrictions include prohibitions on allowing the top five Taiwanese officials – the president, prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister – to come to Washington and forbidding visits of higher-level U.S. officials to Taiwan.
To underscore America’s support for Taipei, the United States also adopted the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. This law formalized America’s intent to help Taiwan defend itself militarily and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) was established to serve as an unofficial diplomatic mission in Taipei.
The one-China policy failed to live up to its laudable ideals. The PRC’s autocratic course has accelerated with the elimination of presidential term limits by China’s Communist Party Committee earlier this year which could allow President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely. Instead of embracing free market liberalization, China’s economy continues to be highly state-controlled. In contrast, Taiwan has become a vibrant, free market outpost in a global neighborhood where genuine liberal democracies are uncommon. Read more about Taiwan’s democratic transformation here. Taiwan has dropped its claims to represent China and has become an important American partner in the Asia-Pacific.
American political engagement with the island nation should reflect those realities making the Taiwan Travel Act a predictable move for a U.S. Presidential Administration that seems intent on exposing and breaking down international myths. Not unlike moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Taiwan Travel Act is progress toward dismantling an internationally-accepted fiction. Jerusalem – Israel’s declared capital and home to Israeli government institutions is the de facto capital of Israel, and Taiwan cannot realistically be considered a province of the PRC – despite international pretense to the contrary.
The new law does not compel President Trump to schedule visits of high-level officials to both democracies. However, the lifting of unofficial restrictions against such exchanges should ultimately lead to normalized relations between the U.S. and Taiwan and perhaps mark the beginning of Taiwan’s official acceptance in the world community. The pragmatic consequences of diplomatic isolation have been felt both by Taiwan and the rest of the world. China prevents Taiwan from participating fully in international institutions including the United Nations and organizations like the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Framework Convention on Climate Change that fall under the UN’s umbrella. These organizations (and thus the world) miss out on what Taiwan has to offer in terms of health, aviation, and environmental expertise. China exerts economic pressure on nations that are considering recognition or have recognized Taiwan in an attempt to drive a wedge between the island democracy and potential allies. Just last month, the Dominican Republic switched official recognition from Taiwan to mainland China.
The United States has the economic heft and strategic interest to discourage attempts to undermine Taiwan’s rightful place in the world. On June 12, a new AIT building will open in Taipei. The Administration could use the occasion to send high-level officials to the opening. This would signal that the United States’ commitment to Taiwan is strong and will lend conflict-avoiding clarity to a situation that seems replete with mixed messages. The Taiwan Travel Act is a positive step toward recognizing regional realities in lieu of perpetuating regional myths.