Even if times change drastically, the rules of US diplomacy may not. Take the rules guiding the US relationship with Taiwan. Once again, the US Congress is attempting to make changes in US-Taiwan diplomatic ties. The executive branch opposes such efforts, because foreign policy is supposed to be its turf. Congress rarely succeeds because it tries to do too much at once. As for China, all it needs to do is grumble. This process has repeated itself over the years, like a broken record.
That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. At least not for someone who has pushed for changing the rules for 15 years. Following my first visit to Taiwan in 1990 after becoming chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, I gave a speech to the Sino-American Cultural Society in Washington. I gave a talk about how Taiwan was democratizing, which was news to many members, who were strong supporters of the "Free China" (the government of Chiang Kai-shek [
Over the years my speeches and reports continued to include this subject, but the US government did not seem to make any effort to help strengthen Taiwan's democratization, aside from paying occasional lip service to democracy in general. China disapproved of any change in Taiwan that strengthened its democratic government. That attitude continues now and goes unchallenged, even by the democratic world.
Support in helping Taiwan make needed changes to its democratic system has been very rare. In 1992 some effort was made to review the rules, but that process was thwarted by senior experts in the State Department and dropped completely after the next elections. In 1994 a Taiwan Policy Review was completed, as had been promised to Congress. It produced very minimal changes, enough to pass Congress. Most of the review's efforts were actually spent assuring China that US policy on Taiwan would remain unchanged.
Now the US finds itself with a Taiwan that has fully established a people's democracy, and increasingly insists on governing itself under that system. It also finds itself dealing with a far different and far stronger China, which wields worldwide influence on many matters -- including its goal to absorb the now genuinely "Free China."
Within the US executive branch, there have always been different priorities in different agencies regarding the US-Taiwan relationship. Even within these agencies, there are conflicting interests on matters of economics and trade, regional security priorities, the potential for spreading democracy and the importance of geopolitical interests.
Congress has now, again, put on the table rather substantial changes to the rules regarding the US-Taiwan relationship. The House has put into the State Department's annual budget bill changes on a wide number of rules dealing with visits and meetings between US officials and their Taiwanese counterparts at the highest level.
In the past, the House has used what is known as expressing the "sense of the Congress" on most Taiwan-related manners. That means that Congress informs the executive branch of its opinions but does not require any action. An amendment to a budget bill several years ago that included similar measures on Taiwan as the present effort became law, but the wording seems to have made it possible for the executive branch to ignore it. This time the House's measure includes budget requirements that cannot be so easily avoided. The House provision, however, has yet to pass the Senate.