Trump Upgrades Taiwan Relations, Angering China

New law permits high-level exchanges of senior military, civilian leaders

Taiwan forces conduct live-fire war games
Taiwan forces conduct live-fire war games / Getty Images
March 21, 2018

President Trump last week upgraded U.S. ties with Taiwan by signing legislation into law calling for increased high-level visits to the island by U.S. civilian and military leaders.

Beijing reacted harshly to the new law, warning of unspecified retaliation for what China's government said was a violation of its understanding of U.S.-China policy.

Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping denounced the new law on Tuesday at the end of a Party meeting that elevated him to the status of president for life.

"Any actions or tricks to separate the country are bound to fail," Xi said in a speech. "They will receive the condemnation of the people and the punishment of history."

The new law was signed Friday with no statement from the White House or Trump.

Michael Anton, a senior White House National Security Council official, said the United States remained "committed to our one-China policy" based on three joint U.S.-China communiques outlining relations and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

"We consider Taiwan to be a vital partner, a democratic success story, and a force for good in the world," Anton, deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications, told the Washington Free Beacon.

"Consistent with that view and with the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States for decades has maintained robust unofficial contacts, including through reciprocal visits by high-level U.S. government and Taiwan representatives," Anton said.

The signing was expected and took place after a debate within the administration over whether the president should approve the bill amid concerns it might upset relations with Beijing.

The law states that it is U.S. policy to permit visits to Taiwan by cabinet-level national security officials, senior military officers, and other executive branch officials.

Senior Taiwan officials also are allowed to visit the United States, and the law also states that officials posted to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, as the diplomatic representative office is called, are permitted to conduct greater activities.

The legislation is a slap at successive administrations that have restricted official U.S. government and military interaction with Taiwan over fears of upsetting China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Taiwan has been an independent state since Chinese Nationalist forces fled to the island in the late 1940s during the civil war that brought the Communist Party of China to power.

The new law augments the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress to counter the decision to shift diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing.

The 1979 law states that the United States will provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and will defend the island against a mainland attack.

Xi, the Chinese leader, said China would seek the peaceful reunification of China and work for the Taiwanese to enjoy the benefits of Chinese development.

"It is a shared aspiration of all Chinese people and in their basic interests to safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and realize China's complete reunification," Xi said.

Xi also warned that China has the will, confidence, and ability to counter any separatist move.

"We cannot allow, and it is impossible for, an inch of our great country's territory to separate from China," Xi said.

The comments were met with cheers from some of the 3,000 Communist delegates attending the Party session.

China specialists said the new law is a positive step in countering China's drive to impose its communist system on democratic Taiwan.

"The deterrent effect of the president's signature on the Taiwan Travel Act will only be realized by the actual implementation of the act," said retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director.

Fanell said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis should now consult with his Taiwanese counterpart and immediately dispatch the commander of the Pacific Command to Taiwan "to learn firsthand about the defensive requirements of the island."

Next, Mattis should dispatch a delegation of admirals and generals to observe the next annual Taiwan military exercise known as Han Kuang.

Also, the Pentagon chief and the military services should send military liaison officers from the Pacific Command to be stationed with counterpart organizations in Taiwan.

Once military contacts are normalized, Mattis and Pacific Command should reestablish routine transits by Navy ships and Air Force aircraft through the 100-mile Taiwan Strait separating the island from the mainland.

Navy warship visits to Taiwan should then be carried out no later than the summer of 2019, Fanell said.

"These are specific recommendations that will ensure both the [People's Republic of China] and our allies recognize that America's commitment to the Indo-Pacific is more than a piece of legislation or a power-point bumper-sticker slogan, which has to often be accepted as an effective national security strategy," Fanell said.

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the new travel should seek to correct the punitive restrictions imposed on Taiwan by State Department bureaucrats for decades.

"These restrictions have long been viewed as petty and put in place purely at the discretion of State Department officials for the purpose of 'containing' relations with Taiwan in order to please Communist China," Fisher said.

The law should also facilitate White House public statements regarding meetings with visiting Taiwanese officials and end petty restrictions such as barring U.S. officials from meetings at the Taiwanese diplomatic residence in Washington known as Twin Oaks.

"This Act should also be viewed as an important opportunity for the Pentagon to increase its interactions with high officials from the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense to advance the goal of strengthening deterrence of Chinese military action against Taiwan," Fisher added.

John Tkacik, a former State Department official involved in Taiwan policy, said the new law is a response to what he said was "chronic neglect" of Taiwan by both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

The neglect was due to "an American foreign policy bureaucracy that has become too lazy to address the ever-growing strategic challenge of China over the past 20 years," Tkacik said.

Both the House and Senate passed the travel law with little opposition and thus "the president sees it as a valuable signal to China," he said.

"President Trump certainly sees the Taiwan Travel Act as a lever to either get Beijing to be constructive in dealing with Pyongyang, or to get the American people to see China for what it has become--a dangerous threat to Asian-Pacific peace and stability," Tkacik said.

U.S. and Chinese policy toward Taiwan are based on a so-called "one-China policy" but both nations have sharply different interpretations of the policy.

Trump angered China shortly after taking office by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. After a backlash from China and pro-China sympathizers in the United States, Trump threatened to abandon the one-China policy.

The White House's new national security strategy and Pentagon's national defense policy elevated China, along with Russia, to a core national security threat.

The new law also comes as the Trump administration is set to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum that are targeted at Chinese efforts to undermine U.S. industries.

Trump also is reportedly preparing to impose $60 billion in annual tariffs on Chinese products in a bid to counter Beijing's theft of U.S. intellectual property.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing the new law violated the one-China principle and three joint communiques.

"This sends out seriously wrong signals to the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces," he said. "The Chinese side is firmly opposed to this."

"The Chinese side urges the U.S. side to correct its mistake, stop official exchanges and upgrading substantive relations between the United States and Taiwan, and prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related issues, so as to avoid causing serious damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait region," he added.