United States Passes Taiwan Travel Act
US President Donald Trump has signed the Taiwan Travel Act, thus legally opening the way for high-level diplomatic and military exchanges between Washington and Taipei. The legislation passed unanimously through the US House of Representatives on Jan. 9, 2018; the US Senate approved the bill via unanimous consent on Feb. 28, upon which the House presented the bill for signature by President Trump on Mar. 5. The president signed the Act into law on Mar. 16.
Since the termination of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Republic of China (commonly “Taiwan,” with its government seated in Taipei) and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (commonly “China,” with its government seated in Beijing) in 1979, Washington has maintained unofficial relations with Taipei under the framework of the Taiwan Relations Act.
While the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act provides for de facto diplomatic, economic, and consular contacts between the United States and Taiwan via the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), US policy regarding Taiwan is further complicated by the “Three Communiqués” issued jointly by Washington and Beijing during normalization of relations in the late 1970s. In the three agreements, the US recognized the principle of “One China,” albeit not explicitly recognizing Beijing’s claim to be the sole legitimate government of all China, of which Taiwan is a part of; terminated relations with Taipei in favor of normalized relations with Beijing; agreed to limit arms sales to Taiwan pending a “peaceful solution to the Taiwan question.”
The US, under President Ronald Reagan, issued an unilateral clarification to the third communiqué in 1982, listing “six assurances” that reaffirmed US support of Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act — most notably not setting a date for termination of arms sales, not formally recognizing Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, and not pressuring Taipei to enter into negotiations with Beijing over the status of Taiwan. This list of assurances, reaffirmed by successive US administrations, has served as one of the key guidelines for US-Taiwan relations.
The US, as one of the “unwritten rules and regulations” of the post-1979 US-Taiwan relationship, has barred top-level visits by Taiwanese officials and forbidden exchanges between high-level diplomatic and military personnel of the two sides. Visits by Taiwan’s president to US soil draws almost immediate protest from Beijing, as most recently seen in response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s Oct. 2017 transit stop in Hawaii.
The new Taiwan Travel Act acknowledges “insufficient high-level communication” between Washington and Taipei “due to the self-imposed restrictions” the US has maintained on “high-level visits with Taiwan.” As such, the Act resolves that US policy should allow US government officials “at all levels, including Cabinet-level national security officials, general officers, and other executive branch officials” to visit their “Taiwanese counterparts” and vice versa, along with encouraging the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office — Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the US — to conduct business and engage with US officials at all levels of government.
The first high-profile visit to Taiwan under the provisions of the new Act occurred on Mar. 20, with US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Alex Wong traveled to the self-ruled island and joined members of the American Chamber of Commerce and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for a dinner event in Taipei. Wong stated the US sought to “strengthen our ties with the Taiwan people and to bolster Taiwan’s ability to defend its democracy” and remained committed to Taiwan’s continued “safety and security.”
Beijing has lodged formal protests with Washington over the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act and has recently escalated its language and actions regarding the self-ruling island. Chinese State-run newspaper The Global Times featured an editorial on Mar. 22 urging China to be prepared for military action over Taiwan while China’s President Xi Jinping warned that Taiwan would face the “punishment of history” for any separatist actions.