US President Joe Biden’s administration continues to build on the unprecedented efforts of former US president Donald Trump’s team to deepen US relations with Taiwan.
Without either administration explicitly declaring it, their combined policies have effectively transformed Washington’s ritualistic “one China” formula, while paying it deferential lip service.
The two administrations have instituted policies that de facto nullify one of the “three noes” that then-US president Bill Clinton affirmed during his 1998 visit to Beijing: no Taiwanese independence; no “two Chinas”; no “one China, one Taiwan”; and no participation in most international organizations. (Actually four noes.)
Last month, Washington opened a new front in the campaign to elevate Taiwan’s status as the two countries revived a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), which had been signed in 1994, but was essentially moribund since then.
One of the main obstacles to negotiating a trade agreement under TIFA had been Taiwan’s unwillingness to purchase US pork and beef treated with additives. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) last year broke the logjam over strong domestic opposition and announced that Taiwan would lift the ban.
With that hurdle overcome, the way was clear for serious talks potentially leading to a free-trade agreement, and the Trump administration seemed more likely to make it happen than any previous administration.
Despite the auspicious circumstances, the timing did not work because then-US trade representative Robert Lighthizer was immersed in critical negotiations with China, but more than his inability to commit the necessary time and energy was involved. Beijing strongly objected to the Trump administration’s growing ties with Taiwan and warned that Washington would have to choose which trade partner was more important to its interests.
The political impasse over Taiwan’s economic status was reminiscent of the years-long delay that held up its accession to the WTO in the 1990s. Although Taiwan early on had qualified for WTO entry, Beijing insisted that China be admitted first and that Taiwan could enter only as the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (Chinese Taipei). The WTO acceded to Beijing’s demands and held up Taiwan’s admission until China got its economic house in order to barely meet the minimum standards in 2001.
Biden, then a US senator and vice chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted the linkage of accession for the cross-strait rivals. At a hearing on Permanent Normal Trade Relations in July 2000, he said that he had long supported linking trade with China to its progress on human rights, but had changed his mind. One reason he cited for reversing his position was that Taiwan could then join. He said that economic interdependence between the two new WTO members would reduce cross-strait tensions.
Last year, China had even greater leverage, since Trump placed all his political chips on getting a historic trade deal with China, but by the time Beijing’s negotiators had worn down Lighthizer and his team, the “phase 1” trade deal was more modest than the original US objectives, and Trump had far less to tout for his re-election campaign.
With the election looming, time had run out on opening trade negotiations with Taiwan. Not needing to please Beijing, the Biden administration was left to start the TIFA process. Preliminary negotiations are underway and the prospect for deeper US-Taiwan economic relations is good.
However, the Biden team has so far left unattended a critical security matter regarding Taiwan that also languished during the Trump administration: the congressional initiative known as the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA), introduced last year “to authorize the president to use military force for the purpose of securing and defending Taiwan against armed attack.” It was reintroduced in this session of the US Congress and is awaiting action.
TIPA envisions a wider range of Chinese military threats against Taiwan than the massive invasion of the main island recently deemed “highly unlikely” by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley.
TIPA is intended not only to prevent “a direct armed attack by the military forces of the People’s Republic of China,” but also to deter “the taking of [any island] territory under the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan,” and China’s “endangering of the lives of members of the military forces of Taiwan or civilians within the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan.”
If passed by Congress, TIPA would directly repudiate Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” as first enunciated by the Clinton administration when it told Chinese officials: “We don’t know” what the US would do if China attacked Taiwan. “It would depend on the circumstances.”
TIPA eliminates the critical loss of time that would be consumed in frantic administration and congressional debate under the urgent circumstances of an actual or imminent Chinese attack. The act now provides for a pre-emptive congressional vote to enable thoughtful deliberation of the US’ national security interests — before China’s current naval and aviation incursions become something more sinister.
TIPA addresses the legal and constitutional considerations, stating: “[The US] Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning … of the War Powers Resolution.”
It explicitly calls for the end of ambiguity: “It is the sense of Congress that … the president should release a public declaration that it is the policy of the United States to secure and protect Taiwan against any action of the People’s Republic of China described [above].”
Finally, TIPA also calls on China to meet its responsibilities for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait: “It is the policy of the United States to demand that the People’s Republic of China officially renounce the use or threat of military force in any attempt to unify with Taiwan.”
It is understandable that the executive branch under Biden, just as was true under Trump and previous US presidents, would prefer not to have its hands tied by a clear security commitment to Taiwan, but anything less than strategic clarity keeps the door open for Beijing to believe that it can get away with a quick strike on some piece of Taiwanese territory, or on Taipei itself.
The growing danger was demonstrated when Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平) commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by promising that foreign nations that bully China will “get their heads bashed” (after calling for a “lovable” foreign policy).
CCP organ the Global Times said that Xi “expressed steel-like determination and confidence in reunification” — perhaps to match the Biden administration’s “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan.
TIFA and TIPA are the best answers to Beijing’s menacing rhetoric and actions. Biden should announce his support for both.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, and is a fellow of the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.
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