Just as the fire ignited by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosis’ visit to Taiwan and China’s predictable military retaliation began to fade, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee turned on its blowtorch. The committee last week advanced the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 (TPA), proposed by Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham in June, clearing it for passage into the Senate.
The bill is dominated by a values-based bias towards Taiwan and an anti-China opposition clinging to the tropes of superpower struggle. These frameworks serve the narrative needs of hawks in both the US and China. Taiwan’s leading Democratic Progressive Party has also drawn on the rhetoric of democracy and freedom and its relationship with the US in its messages on cross-strait relations. But Taiwan should matter to US lawmakers mostly for what it is, not what it isn’t.
The United States should pursue a Taiwan policy that offers tangible and well-funded advances in trade, innovation, technology, and cultural and linguistic exchanges. Given Beijing’s constant obsession with conquering Taiwan, any US policy that makes China happy is almost certainly a failure. But there is an important difference between seizing an opportunity to support a nation in need and taking action designed solely to anger a common adversary.
The TPA advocates strengthening trade, which could offer real benefits to Americans and Taiwanese and anger China’s leaders — but with purpose. (The House Ways and Means Committee recently held a hearing on Taiwan trade.) It would explore the American Institute’s establishment of an infectious disease surveillance center in Taiwan, encourage Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, and strengthen people-to-people ties by funding a fellowship for Americans traveling to Taiwan to learn Mandarin and study the region. These are the best parts of the bill.
Elsewhere, the TPA suggests that the US treat Taiwan “as if it were a key non-NATO ally” and rename Taiwan’s representative offices to use the country’s name instead of the capital. It also includes sections dealing with “deterrent measures” against China and “countering PRC coercion and influence campaigns”. Where appropriate, these efforts against the Chinese government should be undertaken in a multilateral manner that includes input from civil society, especially Taiwanese, rather than in a bill that calls itself Taiwan political law. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is mentioned nine times, mainly in descriptions of possible sanctions against party officials, while Taiwan’s leading party is not mentioned at all. Instead, it describes that the “government in Taiwan” and the US have “no restrictions on bilateral interactions.”
Under Biden, the US has spearheaded a competitive split between autocracies and democracies, with Taiwan crucially belonging to the latter. By overemphasizing “common values,” the TPA demonstrates the heightened self-interest that the United States’ Taiwan policy has assumed as China has become a competitor, rival, techno-authoritarian regime, geopolitical rival, or downright villain. It would be more rewarding to develop policies that respond directly to the mutual interests of Americans and Taiwanese and strengthen the relationship so that it is more than an arms exchange, applause for democracy, and opposition to Beijing.
The Taiwan Relations Act laid important foundations for a Taiwan-US relationship that worked outside of typical bilateral borders, as the US shifted its diplomatic recognition from the ROC government in Taipei to the PRC government in Beijing on the same day had come into force. The Soviet Union was the bogeyman, and the US appeals to China came in this context. Peace and security were the watchwords in 1979, when China was waging a border war with Vietnam and had just emerged from the devastating Cultural Revolution that Mao led until his death in 1976.
Deng Xiaoping had big plans for China’s economy, but it would be decades before the seeds he sown produced the current US view of China – that it would be a rival economy, a challenger to military and naval dominance in the Indo-Pacific, a technological competitor and a competitor is uncomfortably influential in global institutions and in governments and civil societies throughout the developing world.
Fast forward to 2022, where anything China does or might do is viewed as a direct threat to US national security, and the TPA reflects that very clearly. “Regional peace and security” are no longer top priorities; Instead, this year’s bill emphasizes China’s authoritarian sins under Xi Jinping, who is directly quoted and twice named.
Values, not safety, are the driving force behind this legislation. That’s not subtle: the bill describes the Taiwan-US relationship as “values-based.” A version of the word “democracy” appears 22 times, alongside terms like “rules-based international order,” “freedom of expression,” and the one-size-fits-all “liberty.”
And when it comes to military competition between China and the United States, the TPA unabashedly expresses its basic fears: “The PRC regards the suppression of Taiwan’s freedom as a critical and necessary step in order to establish the United States as a pre-eminent military power in the Indo-Pacific oust.” The Chinese government’s attempt to deprive Taiwan of its sacrosanct freedom is thus seen as essentially a way of tying it to the United States.
This self-centered perspective distorts Beijing’s real goals vis-a-vis Taiwan, which is indeed based on its aggressively far-reaching territorial claims, which predates any possible attempt by the PRC to overtake the US as the largest military power in the Pacific or elsewhere. The CCP’s claim on Taiwan is a nationalist project rooted in national legitimacy. For the party, it is about China’s “national rejuvenation”, China’s resilience to imperialist legacies, and China’s support of the CCP to the KMT – or any other past, possible or future rival party. From China’s perspective, it’s about China; From the United States perspective, it’s about the United States.
Beijing is not blind to the geostrategic advantages that controlling Taiwan would offer, but to present those advantages – plus general authoritarianism – as the primary motivation misses the point. Amid the threats that characterize their daily lives, some Taiwan residents have pleaded for Western observers to overcome their relative “cheerfulness” and listen to Taiwanese perspectives on Taiwanese issues.
The Taiwan Policy Act points to a broader shift in foreign policy. The rapid, sweeping, and bipartisan securitization of United States policy and prerogative over China in recent years has affected its relationship with Taiwan, a state that has much to gain from a tough US stance on China, even if it is Approach Taiwan is teetering on the brink of negotiating a conflict that, if it ever occurs, would unfold within its borders, with its people on the front lines and its way of life on the chopping block.