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Stability in the Taiwan Strait at risk under 'Strategic Competition Act'

The second installment in our series exploring Senate measures that could set the US on a course of cold war with China.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

This is the second installment in a multi-part Responsible Statecraft series on the Strategic Competition Act (S. 1169), a bill under consideration that would effectively constitute a declaration of a cold war on China by the U.S. Congress. The introduction to this series critiquing the overall approach of the bill can be read here

Through a number of legislative actions and findings, the Strategic Competition Act recently advanced by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would, if enacted into law, undermine the longstanding U.S. “one-China” policy and the strategic ambiguity that have maintained stability in the Taiwan Strait for decades. 

One way in which the bill would do so is by stipulating that “the United States Government shall not place any restrictions on the ability of officials of the Department of State and other United States Government departments and agencies to interact directly and routinely with counterparts in the Taiwan government.” 

This provision arguably would violate the separation of powers outlined in the constitution, which grants the executive power to conduct diplomacy and recognize foreign governments. The Biden administration has conducted its own review of official policy and protocol regarding contacts between the U.S. government and the Taiwan government, in the wake of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s last-minute removal of those restrictions. This provision in the Strategic Competition Act would undercut the executive branch’s prerogative to determine the nature of those protocols. 

Moreover, the protocols governing relations between the United States and Taiwan are in many ways the workaday substance of the one-China policy — details to which China pays acute attention. Legislating the removal of such restrictions would risk turning the one-China policy into a policy in name only. This would exacerbate fears in Beijing that the United States is inching toward official recognition of Taiwan’s independence. Such a development could over time lead to a major rupture in U.S.-China relations and provide the impetus for China to take more drastic coercive action to prevent harm to what it perceives to be its core interests in preserving the option of eventual reunification. Washington may resent that reality, but it cannot make policy in ignorance of it given the potentially ruinous implications of a U.S.-China economic or military war over Taiwan.

In addition to this attempt to force changes in diplomatic protocol, the bill contains several destabilizing “findings” and misleading statements of policy about Taiwan. These elements of the bill would not be legally binding on the executive branch and would not in and of themselves force changes in U.S. Taiwan policy. Nonetheless, there is a danger that observers in China (and Taiwan) would not understand or care about this legal distinction. Thus, it is essential that Congress not cavalierly include language in the bill that would contradict America’s longstanding policies on Taiwan. 

One example of such irresponsible language is in the findings section at the beginning of the proposed legislation, which declares Taiwan to be “a vital part of Indo-Pacific strategy.” Although this statement is presented as a straightforward statement of existing U.S. policy, it is anything but. 

On the contrary, this proposed approach to Taiwan implicitly rejects the basic logic of strategic ambiguity, whereby the United States does not adopt an explicit position on whether or not it would use military force to defend Taiwan. (This, in reflection of the fact that Taiwan is not a U.S. treaty ally, though the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires the President to “inform the Congress promptly” of threats to the people on Taiwan and related US interests.) This approach also undermines the delicate balance that facilitated normalization between China and the United States and navigation of a subsequent impasse over the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in the 1970s and 80s. This balance involved Beijing announcing it would pursue unification with Taiwan primarily by peaceful means, as a corollary to Washington indicating it would accept whatever peaceful resolution to cross-Strait differences the two sides may eventually mutually agree upon, including unification. 

The bill later makes this dramatic shift in attitude toward Taiwan explicit. It declares that the defense of Taiwan is “critical” not only to defending the people of Taiwan, but also to “limiting the [People’s Liberation Army’s] ability to project power beyond the First Island Chain, including to United States territory, such as Guam and Hawaii; (C) defending the territorial integrity of Japan; (D) preventing the PLA from diverting military planning, resources, and personnel to broader military ambitions; and (E) retaining the United States credibility as a defender of the democratic values and free-market principles embodied by Taiwan’s people and government.” 

With these provisions, the bill would effectively treat Taiwan as a so-called unsinkable aircraft carrier that must be kept out of China’s hands for the defense of U.S. and Japanese territory; as a tool in a competitive military strategy against China designed to distract and contain Beijing; and as a bellwether for U.S. credibility in defending democracy and free markets worldwide. The bill would thus instrumentalize Taiwan as a strategic asset in broader great power competition between the United States and China. Although there was a hint of this approach in the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy declassified days before President Trump’s departure from office, which called for “defending the first-island-chain nations, including Taiwan,” such an approach itself represented a dangerous departure from longstanding policy.

Indeed, while Taiwan’s military significance in the Western Pacific is obvious from an operational perspective, it is precisely this fact (among many other reasons) that has led policymakers in Washington, Taipei, and Beijing to be so cautious in their crafting of policy regarding the island over the last several decades. If Congress were to affirm the island’s centrality to military competition with China, it would be contradicting decades of successful Taiwan policy that has studiously rejected this temptation. Even though not legally binding, such language could provide impetus for China to change its own policies on Taiwan — which, contrary to this bill’s baseless accusation in Finding 20, do not include the official aim of converting Taiwan into a base for further power projection beyond the First Island Chain. 

The bill thus would risk overtly turning Taiwan into ground zero of a broader militarized struggle between two nuclear superpowers. And it would do so without considering whether or not the people of Taiwan — who have consistently favored the maintenance of the status quo in cross-Strait relations in opinion polling — would like to be exploited for these broader geopolitical purposes. 

Congress prides itself on being in many ways the chief architect and steward of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. It must not, then, contribute to eroding the conditions that preserve peace in the Taiwan Strait in ways that it is not clear even Taiwan would welcome. Members of Congress should consult with Taiwan’s officials and experts first before assuming they know what is best for Taiwan. Instead of recklessly endangering Taiwan by using it as a pawn in great power games, Congress should work to bolster engagement with Taiwan without undermining the policies that are essential for maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

In this vein, there are some positive provisions related to Taiwan in the bill — such as establishing a Taiwan Fellowship Program and expanding support for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization and similar institutions. These provisions would conform with longstanding American policy toward Taiwan, while also helping to bolster U.S.-Taiwan relations and strengthen Taiwan’s integration into global governance structures. 

But much of the bill’s proposed language on Taiwan would operate at cross-purposes with these more constructive measures, endangering U.S. security and the people of Taiwan in the process. Congress should strip these harmful elements from the bill in the interests of America, Taiwan, and global peace and stability.

See also the first article in this series, The ‘Strategic Competition Act’ is a dangerous declaration of cold war on China

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