On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, a bill that gives the president political cover to significantly shift U.S. policy toward Taiwan in a manner that would deeply rile Beijing. The legislation, which congressional Republicans introduced a year ago, and which both houses passed unanimously this February, argues that it “should be U.S. policy” to allow American officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts and for high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the United States “to meet with U.S. officials, including officials from the Departments of State and Defense.” By signing the bill, Trump signaled to Beijing that he would consider allowing high-level U.S.-Taiwanese contacts of a sort normally reserved for nations with official diplomatic ties.

Since the United States derecognized Taiwan and established relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, Washington has maintained only unofficial relations with the Taiwanese government. Sino-U.S. relations are underpinned by three joint communiqués (agreed upon in 1972, 1979, and 1982) in which the United States “acknowledged,” but did not explicitly accept, the Chinese position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States would continue to maintain unofficial relations with “the people of Taiwan,” including those in Taiwan’s government, through the American Institute in Taiwan, an embassy-like entity established through the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. This law states that Washington’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” To promote a peaceful solution, the United States would sell Taiwan arms of a defensive nature and maintain the military capacity to resist Chinese coercion.

From the early 1990s until about 2008, the PRC rapidly ratcheted up its military pressure on Taiwan. Beijing did not stop threatening Taiwan after 2008 but directed most of its military energies to securing its expansive claim to nearly all of the land features in the South China Sea. Concerns about Chinese irredentism and expansionism led to calls for strengthening the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. The proposal to encourage high-level U.S.-Taiwanese official contact emerged out of these concerns—dangling the possibility that such contact could, in theory, serve to restrain Beijing. Unfortunately, the Taiwan Travel Act is now entangled in the chaos of the Trump administration, and its implementation would thus be more likely to undermine Taiwan’s security than enhance it. At best, China will view the TTA as a gratuitous slap in the face. But at worst, it will see it as a ploy to permanently separate Taiwan from China, a scenario that Beijing will not accept.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, January 7, 2017.
Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Because of the Trump administration’s unpredictability and instability, China, already on the edge of a trade war with the United States, has to consider the very real possibility that Trump might consider implementing the act and allow for high-level official exchanges with Taiwan. This would be all the more likely if, as is rumored, a figure such as John Bolton were to become the next national security adviser. In 2016, Bolton called upon Washington to play the “Taiwan card,” going all the way as to recommend recognizing Taiwan’s statehood, in order to coerce Beijing to withdraw from the South China Sea and dismantle its military bases there. Given this possibility, the Chinese embassy in Washington issued a strong statement denouncing the TTA, warning that “relevant clauses [of it] severely violate the one-China principle, the political foundation of the China-U.S. relationship, and the three joint communiqués.” The statement urged the United States to “stop pursuing any official ties with Taiwan or improving its current relations with Taiwan in any substantive way.”

Because of Beijing’s avowed determination to “unify” democratic Taiwan by force if necessary, maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait was always going to be difficult after Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s fourth directly elected president in May 2016. The foundational principle of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which also won the legislature in the January 2016 elections, is that Taiwan is an independent, sovereign nation that will never become a part of China. With strong popular support, Tsai refused to accept, unlike her immediate predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party, the so-called 1992 Consensus, a policy that proclaims both sides of the Strait belong to “one China” but that each side can offer its own interpretation of what “one China” is.

Tsai’s rejection of the 1992 Consensus angered Beijing, which responded to her defiance by cutting off hotline communications and inflicting a degree of economic pain by sharply reducing the number of Chinese tour groups allowed to travel to Taiwan. China’s general response to Tsai’s election, however, was initially milder than expected—likely a function of Tsai’s determination to go the extra mile to avoid provoking Beijing or overreacting to its provocations. Unlike the first DPP president, Chen Shui-bian (who governed from 2000 to 2008), Tsai refrained from securitizing China’s behavior by declining to discuss the hotline or tourist issues in alarmist tones. Tsai seems to understand that Taiwan’s security can best be enhanced by deflecting PRC moves and responding to them calmly and with self-assurance. In the initial months of her presidency, there was reason to feel cautiously optimistic about stability in the Taiwan Strait.

But Tsai’s presidency has not been without its stumbles. Perhaps coming under pressure from the hard-core Taiwan independence wing of the DPP, Tsai worked with a group of Republicans to place a congratulatory telephone call in December 2016 to Trump who was then only the president-elect. The call further strained Taiwan’s relations with Beijing. In the 15 months since the phone call, tensions between the two have reached their highest levels since the mid-2000s, when Chen was president. Although after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017, Trump pledged never to speak with Tsai again without first consulting Xi, Beijing has grown increasingly assertive with Taipei over the past year. The Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports that China “interfered in Taiwan’s foreign affairs” 42 times during 2017, the most such incidents since 2007. The interference has ranged from poaching diplomatic allies (the number of countries now recognizing Taiwan is down to 20 from 22 in 2016) to compelling the building managers at the United Nations in New York to deny entry to Taiwanese tourists unless they first apply for the Mainland Travel Permit for Taiwan Residents.

Even more seriously, Chinese military aircraft, including bombers and advanced fighter jets, repeatedly menaced Taiwan over the course of 2017 by flying provocatively close to Taiwanese air space. There were ten such incursions in October through December alone. It is unclear how many incursions there were before 2017, but Taiwanese military officials pronounced the most recent number as “unprecedented.” Meanwhile, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense reported that the PLA Air Force staged 16 military exercises near Taiwan in 2017. Chinese military exercises threatening Taiwan are common, but the provocative way in which the PLA aircraft and naval vessels encircled the island was viewed by some analysts as highly unusual. Further rattling nerves, China sailed its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in January and July 2017 and then again in January 2018. The only other time this happened was in 2013. In the year after the Trump-Tsai telephone call, China was surely trying to signal not just to Taiwan but also the hawkish factions surrounding Trump that it would not accept a situation in which the United States treated Taiwan as a sovereign nation. 

With the passage of the TTA, there is a very real possibility that at some point Trump might play the Taiwan card in a way that risks military conflict with China.

Adding to Beijing’s fury, the Trump administration announced a $1.4 billion arms sales package for Taiwan in June 2017, and then in December Congress passed (and Trump signed into law) the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018. This legislation calls for the United States to invite Taiwan to participate in joint U.S.-Taiwanese military exercises and to “consider the advisability and feasibility of reestablishing port of call exchanges between the United States navy and the Taiwan navy.” The “suggestions” are not binding for the Department of Defense. But either move would be unprecedented and would be seen by Beijing as incendiary. China, unable to predict what the Pentagon will actually do under Trump, has felt the need to warn and threaten the United States in anticipation of worst-case possibilities. In late December, a Chinese diplomat visiting Washington vowed that “the day a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force,” an unusually explicit warning of a sort not heard in a decade or more.

Now with the passage of the TTA, and given the recent and possibly pending personnel changes in the Trump administration, there is a very real possibility that at some point Trump might play the Taiwan card in a way that risks military conflict with China. While there would probably be jubilation in Taiwan if Trump were to radically upgrade U.S. relations with the island nation, it would be wiser for Tsai to resist the temptation to accept such a change. She should recognize that doing so would turn Taiwan into a pawn in Washington’s struggle with Beijing. The Trump administration is too unfocused and chaotic to be a reliable partner, and Trump’s nativist political base would likely reject the United States going to war on Taiwan’s behalf. Taiwan would best be served if Tsai were to return to her cautious roots and keep Taiwan’s comprehensive, long-term security foremost in her mind.

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  • DANIEL LYNCH is a Professor of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong, on leave from the University of Southern California.
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