On March 16, 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act was signed into law by US President Donald Trump after being unanimously passed by the House of Representatives on January 9 and the Senate on February 28. Described as a follow-up to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, it updates US policy to “allow [US] officials at all levels … to travel to Taiwan”, “high-level [Taiwanese] officials” to visit the US and meet US government officials under respectful conditions, and encourage Taiwanese entities to more freely conduct business within the US and with US officials.
The Taiwan Travel Act likely has several explicit and implicit objectives:
- Recognize Taiwan’s achievements in becoming “a beacon of democracy in Asia” and role in “inspir[ing] many countries and people in the region.”
- Back US rhetorical support for democratization in other countries with concrete policy action.
- Demonstrate US commitment to regional security and stability by forewarning Beijing that coercive measures detrimental to Taiwan’s de facto autonomy are viewed as “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
Evaluating the potential impacts of the Taiwan Travel Act regarding the various key issues at stake suggests:
- Cross-Strait Relations: ⭘⬤⭘⭘⭘ Negative
Beijing, having used the landslide election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016 as justification for slowly ratcheting up political and economic pressure on the island, will attempt to frame enhanced US support as unwelcome foreign involvement in domestic Chinese issues.
- Taiwan–US Relations: ⭘⭘⭘⭘⬤ Very positive
Not only does the act pave the way for exchanges between high-level Taiwanese and US government officials, it also acknowledges that relations “have suffered from insufficient high-level communication due to the self-imposed restrictions” of the US, suggesting that the US government is prepared to demonstrate more proactive commitment to supporting Taiwan’s positive role in the region moving forward.
- China–US Relations: ⭘⬤⭘⭘⭘ Negative
The act is one in a series of policy actions that the US government has taken during the Trump administration that is clearly directed at China and aims to deter or mitigate the effects of Chinese policies seen as unfair to the US economically or detrimental to US political and security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. China has the economic and political leverage to respond accordingly, and a cycle of reactionary policy moves by the world’s two great powers may have repercussions for bilateral relations in the future.
- Taiwan’s Political Status: ⭘⭘⭘⭘⬤ Very positive
Legislation enhancing US government support for Taiwan policymakers to be involved in global political affairs is beneficial for the island’s people and institutions regardless of political party. For decades, Taiwan has proactively demonstrated its commitment to being a responsible stakeholder in the international system despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles imposed by its unique political status. The act is an official recognition of those efforts by its most influential partner internationally. All of the major political parties in Taiwan – as well as those in the US – will see this as beneficial to their own interests.
Overall Impacts: ⭘⭘⭘⬤⭘ Positive
Although Beijing will express adamant opposition to any change in US legislation that it views as supportive of Taiwanese independence, the Taiwan Travel Act will be understood by most relevant actors for what it is: as an expression of support for government officials from an important partner to be treated with respect in their interactions with the US and a policy that is beneficial over the long term to US economic and political interests.
Research contributed by Jonathan Spangler.
Published April 30, 2018. Last updated April 30, 2018.
All views expressed are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Asia-Pacific Policy Research Association or its affiliated programs. APPRA is an independent, non-profit organization promoting dialogue, research, and education about policies in the Asia-Pacific region. Support our work by making a donation.