US Senators Urge Speaker Pelosi to Invite the “President of Taiwan” to Address the US Congress
In an unprecedented move, five sitting US senators issued a joint letter to the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), to invite the “President of Taiwan” to address the US Congress. In their letter, US Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tom Cotton (R-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) called on Speaker Pelosi to invite President Tsai Ing-wen to address a joint session of Congress. This is the first time that members of the US Congress have explicitly and affirmatively expressed their intent to invite the president of Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), to address a joint session of the US Congress after the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The last time that a representative from the ROC government directly addressed Congress was in 1943 when Madame Soong May-ling—the wife of Chiang Kai-shek—pleaded for American support for Chiang’s Nationalists against Mao’s Communists and Imperial Japan.
In recognition of the changes that occurred in the Taiwan Strait since 1943, the five senators—all Republicans and three whom serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—stated: “President Tsai is a genuine democratic leader engaged in a struggle against an authoritarian and oppressive system that seeks to deny the Taiwanese people democratic rights and fundamental freedoms. Extending an invitation for President Tsai to address a joint session of Congress in this historic year for US-Taiwan relations would send a powerful message that the United States and the American people will always stand with the oppressed, and never the oppressor.”
The “historic year” that the senators are referring to is of course the 40th anniversary of the TRA, a remarkable US domestic law passed in 1979 in the wake of Washington’s switch in diplomatic relations from the ROC to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In addition to serving as the legal basis for unofficial relations between the United States and Taiwan, the Senators’ act of inviting President Tsai serves as a reminder of the TRA’s elasticity and a testament to the wisdom of its drafters. Indeed, the act, which recognizes how Taiwan has evolved from an authoritarian government into a vibrant democracy, imbues new meaning in the letter of the law.
As the legislative basis for the invitation, the letter states: “Since the TRA went into effect, Congress has expressed near-unanimous bipartisan support for Taiwan, including encouraging high-level leader visits between Taiwan and the United States. Most recently, the Taiwan Travel Act (P.L. 115-135), signed into law on March 16, 2018, explicitly allows ‘high-level officials of Taiwan to enter the United States, under conditions which demonstrate appropriate respect for the dignity of such officials, and to meet with officials of the United States.’ The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-409), signed into law on December 31, 2018, re-affirms the provisions of the Taiwan Travel Act [TTA].” The TTA was unanimously passed by the US Congress in February 2018 and signed into law by President Donald Trump. Since the enactment of the law, however, some have expressed dissatisfaction with its apparent lack of implementation. As a domestic law, the TRA entrusts Congress with a special oversight function and the president is enjoined by Article 2, Section 3 of the US Constitution to faithfully execute the law.
Reactions to the invitation by the Senators within the broader policy community have been mixed. Supporters of the decision have highlighted how an invitation could contribute towards convincing China to finally accept Taiwan as a friendly neighbor and by recognizing Taiwan’s transition from an authoritarian government to a democracy to start the process towards normalization of relations. Other experts have cautioned against the proposal. Richard Bush, former chairman of AIT, wrote that the proposal was ”flawed” and argued that such a move would be contrary to a fundamental principle of US relations with China, it would contradict the unofficial nature of the US-Taiwan relations, and could cause more disturbances for President Tsai than perhaps it would be worth. While acknowledging the importance of symbols, Bush argued that “public symbols, deftly deployed, are important in relations with Taiwan, but substance is far more important.”
While substance is certainly important, what is often lost in the debate over substance versus symbolism is that symbols also have substance. Political symbols contribute towards social and political cohesion, and strengthening public morale is a way of enhancing resilience critical for resisting coercion. Likewise, the absence of political symbols could lead to a weakening of social and political cohesion that would lower a society’s capacity to resist coercion. The TRA states that it is a policy of the United States “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
An important signal or symbol that appears to be lost in the prevailing reactions to the invitation of a possible address to Congress by President Tsai is the act’s conditioning effect on Beijing. The action taken by the Senators demonstrate that it has always been the power of the US government—not Beijing—to interpret the TRA and US “One China” policy and determine how to conduct its relations with a democratic ally. At the very least, this is an important signal to Beijing that if it continues to deal in bad faith with Taiwan’s democratically-elected leaders, then the US Congress, under the TRA and the TTA, has a responsibility to ensure that Taiwan’s democratic system is not jeopardized by PRC’s intensifying coercive campaign.
Indeed, the United States’ Intelligence Community assessed in its recent Worldwide Threat Assessment of the coming ideological contest with China. Taiwan is a frontline democracy in this strategic competition between democracies and autocracies. An indispensable component in this strategic competition should be a proactive policy that extends greater legitimacy to democracies.
The main point: An important signal and symbol that should not be lost in the prevailing reactions to the invitation of a possible address to Congress by President Tsai is the conditioning effect on Beijing of the Congressmen’s act of urging the invitation itself.
US Intel Community Spotlights China and Implications for Taiwan
In just the first month of 2019, the US Intelligence Community (IC) released two unclassified reports that spotlighted what American intelligence analysts see as challenges posed by China to the United States and the liberal international order. On balance, the assessments, which highlighted the growing capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the multifaceted challenges posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), have implications for Taiwan. Overall, they suggest a shift in the approach of the IC’s public diplomacy efforts to “get the word out” on the nature of the threat from China. One study is the Defense Intelligence Agency’s “China’s Military Power Report” and the other is the Intelligence Community’s annual 2019 “Worldwide Threat Assessment” prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
DIA’s 2019 China Military Power Report
On January 19, the DIA released the “China’s Military Power Report” (not to be confused with the DoD’s annual “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China”). The 125-page report provided a detailed assessment, based on intelligence, of the DIA’s unclassified analysis of China’s military intent, strategy, and capabilities. In relations to Taiwan, the DIA specifically assessed:
China has closed many of the gaps in key warfare areas, such as air defense and long-range strike, that would support countering third-party forces in regional campaigns. China has built or acquired a wide array of advanced platforms, including submarines, major surface combatants, missile patrol craft, maritime strike aircraft, and land-based systems that employ new, sophisticated antiship cruise missiles and SAMs. China also has developed the world’s first roadmobile, antiship ballistic missile, a system specifically designed to attack enemy aircraft carriers. China’s leaders hope that possessing these military capabilities will deter proindependence moves by Taiwan or, should deterrence fail, will permit a range of tailored military options against Taiwan and potential third-party military intervention.
According to a senior defense official cited by the Associated Press, “the key concern is that as China upgrades its military equipment and technology and reforms how it trains and develops troops, it becomes more confident in its ability to wage a regional conflict. And Beijing’s leaders have made it clear that reasserting sovereignty over Taiwan is a top priority. The official added, however, that although China could easily fire missiles at Taiwan, it doesn’t yet have the military capability to successfully invade the self-governing island, which split from mainland China amid civil war in 1949.” Further, according to Dan Taylor, a senior defense intelligence analyst with the DIA, “Xi Jinping has made it clear that resolving or making progress, at least, on resolving … the Taiwan situation is a very top priority for him.”
Yet, the significance of the DIA report is not limited to its application for policy planning, it is also for public diplomacy. An unclassified and authoritative intelligence report on China’s military, as with the China Military Power, stands out especially because the only other unclassified intelligence assessment for which the DIA produced a dedicated study was on the former Soviet Union. Soviet Military Power, which was first released in 1981, was an overwhelmingly successful public diplomacy effort that aimed to “get the word out” and help the American public understand the “nature of the threat from the Soviet Union,” and provided an estimate of the military strategy, capabilities, and intent of the Soviet Union.
Most notably, according to A. Denis Clift, president emeritus of the National Intelligence University and the editor & chief of the Soviet Military Power (1981-1991), “[a]nd what we found was that our allies were so impressed that they started volunteering such information that they were gathering to assist us with each new edition. It was an alliance product [emp. added] … For the first time we can talk authoritatively, we can plan authoritatively, and we can work authoritatively based on this information.” Moreover, “[i]t was also a victory for the DIA team providing the intelligence that told the world about the Soviet military buildup. The Soviets couldn’t achieve their goals as long as the West could show the world what the Soviets were doing. Soviet Military Power made that possible.”
IC’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment
Less than two weeks after the release of the DIA report, the US Intelligence Community released its combined assessment of worldwide threats on January 29. At the open hearing held in the Senate Intelligence Committee, ODNI Director Daniel Coats’ opening statement clearly and explicitly identified:
Threats to US national security will expand and diversify in the coming year, driven in part by China and Russia as they respectively compete more intensely with the United States and its traditional allies and partners. This competition cuts across all domains, involves a race for technological and military superiority, and is increasingly about values. [emp. added]
On matters related to Taiwan, the Worldwide Threat Assessment noted how “China has become the second-largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and the third largest contributor to the UN regular budget. It is successfully lobbying for its nationals to obtain senior posts in the UN Secretariat and associated organizations, and it is using its influence to press the UN and member states to acquiesce in China’s preferences on issues such as human rights and Taiwan.”
Further, the IC assessed that Beijing seeks to propagate a narrative that the “United States is in decline and China’s preeminence is inevitable.” Specifically on Taiwan, “Beijing almost certainly will continue using pressure and incentives to try to force Taipei to accept the One China framework and ultimately Chinese control, and it will monitor the US reaction as an indicator of US resolve in the region.” It also highlighted how, “[s]ince 2016, Beijing has persuaded six of Taiwan’s 23 diplomatic partners, most recently Burkina Faso and El Salvador, to recognize China instead of Taiwan.”
In a section focused on “online influence operations and election interference,” the report noted how “Beijing already controls the information environment inside China, and it is expanding its ability to shape information and discourse relating to China abroad, especially on issues that Beijing views as core to party legitimacy, such as Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights. China will continue to use legal, political, and economic levers—such as the lure of Chinese markets—to shape the information environment. It is also capable of using cyber attacks against systems in the United States to censor or suppress viewpoints it deems politically sensitive.”
Perhaps the section with the most implications for Taiwan is the one where Taiwan was not even explicitly mentioned. In the Worldwide Threat Assessment, the IC underscored the coming ideological battle. In this section, the IC assessed that “Chinese leaders will increasingly seek to assert China’s model of authoritarian capitalism as an alternative—and implicitly superior—development path abroad, exacerbating great-power competition that could threaten international support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” As a frontline democracy, Taiwan has an important function in this strategic competition between democracies and autocracies.
Taken together these two reports appear to indicate a shift in the approach of the IC’s public diplomacy efforts on China and should help the public better understand the evolving nature of the PRC threat with implications for democratic Taiwan.
The main point: The two intelligence reports taken independently are significant on their own merits, but taken together they indicate a shift in the approach of the IC’s public diplomacy efforts to help the public understand the nature of China’s threat with implication for Taiwan.