Why Taiwan must work to be a bipartisan issue in US politics

With US-Taiwan relations currently on a high, focus now needs to turn to ensure that Taiwan becomes neither a pawn in US-China diplomacy or a party political issue in US domestic politics

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Flickr user – Donkey Hotel.

Flickr user – Donkey Hotel.

I think it’s fair to say that US-Taiwanese relations are currently as healthy as they have been for some considerable time.

The recent signing by President Donald Trump of the Taiwan Travel Act, which facilities high level diplomatic and military exchanges between the two countries, is a high point in relations which have been rapidly improving ever since Trump broke with long established convention by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) after his election last year.

A number of appointments to senior positions in the Trump administration have been individuals who are known to have strong pro-Taiwanese views. The latest, and perhaps most influential of these, being the new National Security Advisor, John Bolton.

And in the last couple of weeks alone, Taiwan has been visited by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong (黃之瀚) and the Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce.

The dangers of recent US-China diplomatic tensions

It would therefore be easy to assume that with US relations seemingly blossoming, everything is looking pretty rosy for Taiwan at the moment. But that is not necessary the case and Taiwan must to be very wary not to get sucked into a complicated game of international diplomacy and, perhaps even worse, US domestic party politics.

It is impossible to overlook the USA’s currently very complicated relationship with Communist China when considering their relations with Taiwan. This relationships appears to have markedly deteriorated under Donald Trump, with disagreements over North Korea and the recent announcement of trade tariffs against Chinese products seemingly the tip of the iceberg.

The US is well aware that its relationship with Taiwan is a bone of contention with China and the Taiwanese Government and President Tsai need to be extremely careful not to allow Taiwan to become a pawn in US-China relations.

At present, the Taiwanese government appears to be walking that very fine line pretty effectively, but they must remain one hundred percent focused on keeping things that way. China’s recent lurch towards even greater authoritarianism under the leadership of "Emperor Xi" combined with their open hostility towards the Tsai administration makes the risks of getting the balance wrong sizable.

The US political divide on Taiwan

One thing that would seem to play in Taiwan’s favor is the strong support it has at all levels of American Government. The Taiwan Travel Act was passed by both the US Congress and US Senate before being proactively signed off by the President himself, even though he did not actually need to do this in order for it to become law.

But it is no coincidence that both Congress and Senate are both currently controlled by the Republican Party. The Republicans have always been pretty strongly supportive of Taiwan in comparison to the Democrats and this support appears even more resolute these days as suspicion of China grows.

But that stance does not seem to be shared nearly as much by their democratic colleagues, and this is another concern for Taiwan, because as well as not wanting to be a pawn in diplomatic ties between the US and China, Taiwan must also work very hard to avoid becoming a party-political issue in the USA.

Most of the positive vibes that have been coming out of the USA for Taiwan in recent times have been coming from Republican sources.

When President Tsai stopped over in the USA on her way to and from a visit to Central America, she met with US politicians such as Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of whom are staunch right-wing Republicans. Senator Ed Royce, who visited Taiwan this week representing the House Foreign Affairs Committee is a Republican. Even the phone call between Tsai and Trump, which began the recent warn relations was arranged by Bob Dole, a former Republican Senator and Presidential candidate, now turned lobbyist.

Perhaps even more critically, it is almost always the Republican Party which advocate and then carry out arms sales to Taiwan. The most recent arms sale came from the Trump administration and has been followed up by calls from senior Republicans for further sales of F-35 fighter jets and other equipment.

In his first year in office, the Trump Administration has already agreed seven separate arms sales of various different equipment to Taiwan. In the eight years of the Obama administration that preceded it, there were just seventeen.

This illustrates a clear pattern of Republican administrations being much more friendly to Taiwan than Democratic ones. To highlight the possible extent of the problem, an email released by Wikileaks and attributed to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton suggested that she would even have been willing to give up Taiwan to China in exchange for China writing off US debt.

Given the US’s legal requirements towards Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, this may have been difficult to achieve, but even having the intent there does not bode well.

The time to build bridges with the Democrats is now

During economic boom times, there is commonly used saying which goes "always fix the roof while the sun is shining." This is a message Taiwan needs to take to heart now. Yes, it is great that relations with the USA are on such a high at the moment and long may that continue. But it is also important to think towards the future.

That means working closely with the US administration to try and ensure they do not overstep the mark with China and provoke the Xi regime into a hostile military or economic act that could irreparably damage Taiwan.

But it also means beginning to work hard right now to woo Democratic Senators, Congressmen, and potential Presidential candidates over to the Taiwan cause. It is only a matter of time before the Democrats regain some control of the US political system again. Indeed, there are midterm elections being held later this year that could result in Democrats regaining control of both the US Congress and House of Representatives.

Taiwan spends a considerable amount of money on lobbying in the US and is currently reaping the rewards of that. But it needs to double-down on these efforts now and does everything it can to ensure that Taiwan is a bi-partisan issue in US politics rather than a party political one.