The US Congress and Taiwan: Measuring American Support Quantitatively and Qualitatively

The US Congress and Taiwan: Measuring American Support Quantitatively and Qualitatively

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The US Congress and Taiwan: Measuring American Support Quantitatively and Qualitatively

Cross-Strait relations have become increasingly prominent in American politics over the past five years, catalyzed in part by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) bellicose approach to Taiwan. This growing interest has been demonstrated by events like then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 Taiwan visit and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) a year later. Simultaneously, the US Congress has passed—or proposed—a variety of bills related to Taiwan, China, and the Indo-Pacific more broadly. Lawmakers in recent years have been much more likely to propose Taiwan-related legislation, with bills targeting issues like cybersecurity resilience, tax agreements, and invasion prevention. But has the increase in new bills resulted in any meaningful laws? Has congressional attention done anything to improve Taiwan’s defense capabilities, increase the island’s market access in trade, or counter China’s campaigns to steal Taiwan’s diplomatic partners?

In this article, I assess trends in Taiwan-related legislation in the United States Congress from 2009 to the present, finding that bills that deal with Taiwan, China, and the Indo-Pacific have been introduced more frequently than ever before. [1] Yet, over the same timeframe, there has been no concurrent increase in the number of Taiwan-related bills that became actual law, suggesting that Congressional support for Taiwan—and the legislative focus on Indo-Pacific issues generally—may be more symbolic than substantive at the moment.

Despite this tentative conclusion, there are reasons to believe that American support for Taiwan has become more significant. For one, several Taiwan-related bills have passed Congress in the last five years, demonstrating that important laws will continue to impact the US-Taiwan relationship in the future. In addition, there are bills in the pipeline—all introduced in 2023—that stand to help Taiwan if passed, signaling durable Congressional interest in cross-Strait issues.

Finally, I identify further proof that American support for Taiwan is more substantial than some observers might think: more lawmakers visited Taiwan in 2023 than any time in the past five years. While the impacts of Taiwan-related bills have been limited thus far, lawmakers have signaled their interest through trips to Taipei and meetings with Taiwanese officials.

Trends in the Number of Taiwan-Related Bills Introduced by Congress

Taiwan-related bills are being introduced more frequently than ever before. Since 2017, 124 bills have been introduced that explicitly mention Taiwan in the bill’s title or description, compared to 62 such bills from 2009 to 2016. The same is true for bills that mention China—and, to a lesser extent, for ones mentioning the Indo-Pacific in general.

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Graphics: The number of bills introduced by Congress mentioning Taiwan, China, or the Indo-Pacific between 2009 and 2023. (Source: Compiled by the author, from Legiscan)

Trends in the Number of Taiwan-Related Bills That Have Become Law

However, this upward trend disappears when restricted to bills that eventually became law. Congress has approved five pieces of legislation that mentioned Taiwan in the bill’s title or description since 2017, compared to four in the eight years prior. China-related laws were actually passed more frequently in the 2009-2016 period, and no bills that mentioned the Indo-Pacific have been signed by the president in the last six years.

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Graphic: The number of bills mentioning Taiwan, China, or the Indo-Pacific passed by Congress between 2009 and 2023. (Source: Compiled by the author, from Legiscan)

Taiwan-Related Laws That Have Been Passed since 2018

Though there has been no material increase in the number of Taiwan-related laws passed since 2009, there are still reasons to believe that Congress’ impact on Taiwan has been positive and meaningful. For one, the laws passed since 2018, while few in number, have been substantive: they include legislation implementing a US-Taiwan trade agreement, and two laws introduced as explicit rebuffs to Chinese aggression.

The Taiwan Travel Act

The most significant piece of Taiwan-related legislation passed during the Trump Administration was the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA), a 2018 upgrade to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The TTA removed restrictions on travel for high-level American officials, allowing them to visit Taiwan and their counterparts to visit the United States. Though the bill was largely symbolic—it uses the word “should,” not “must,” to describe suggested policy changes—the law nevertheless demonstrated the US government’s interest in upgraded contacts with Taiwan, and cleared the way for more American delegations to visit the island starting in 2018.

Like the TAIPEI Act two years later (see further below), the TTA’s larger impact can be understood from the context surrounding its passage. China lobbied heavily against the bill, including a letter to Congress from the Chinese ambassador that called the legislation “a provocation against China’s sovereignty, national unity and security interests.” The American response was uniform, as multiple lawmakers denounced China’s heavy-handed attempts to interfere with the country’s democratic process. Thus, the TTA was not just meaningful for its policy implications, but also because it offered US politicians an opportunity to stand up to Beijing.

The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act

The TAIPEI Act, passed in March 2020, had the objective of improving US-Taiwan relations and encouraging other countries and international organizations to strengthen their ties with the island. The law advised the president to expand bilateral economic dealings with Taiwan; outlined American intentions to assist Taiwan in gaining entry to international organizations; and required that the secretary of state produce annual reports to Congress explaining the executive branch’s progress on these provisions. Though the legislation lacked mandatory requirements for the president, Congress’ control of appropriations means that the executive is incentivized to faithfully adhere to the TAIPEI Act’s guidelines.

Beyond the substance of this law, the context in which it was passed—in response to PRC efforts to prevent Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations, and to poach the island’s diplomatic partners—also matters. Between January 2016 and May 2019, Taiwan lost five diplomatic partners to Beijing. Later, Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO) amid the spread of COVID-19 robbed the scientific community of important contributions from Taiwanese researchers. Put simply, there were real-world developments that instigated passage of the TAIPEI Act in 2020. Support for the law from both Congress and President Donald Trump signaled a renewed willingness to affirmatively back Taiwan in the face of Chinese coercion.

The US-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade First Agreement Implementation Act

Signed into law by President Joseph Biden in August 2023, the United States-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade / First Agreement Implementation Act covered several critical trade issues: to include good regulatory practices, matters affecting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), anticorruption initiatives, and multinational cooperation. Though it did not produce any new market access commitments, it solidified Congressional interests by bolstering ties with Taipei and reining in the executive branch’s unilateral authority on trade pacts. In regards to the latter point, Congress introduced and passed this measure in early summer 2023 as a first step towards implementing an intended larger trade agreement. It was consequently a signal from the legislative branch that trade agreements are not unilateral affairs on the part of the executive—rather, they require approval from Congress. Overall, passage of this trade legislation was a net positive for Taiwan, as it has the potential to materially improve US-Taiwan trade relations while ensuring that any future trade agreement between the two nations will be durable and not liable to change with each new US presidential administration.

Visits to Taiwan by Members of Congress

In addition to legislation like the TAIPEI Act, the Taiwan Travel Act, and the 21st Century Trade Implementation Act, American delegations to Taiwan have occurred far more frequently in recent years, portending stronger relations between the two nations. Since 2019—excluding 2020, when the pandemic began—the number of lawmakers traveling to Taiwan has risen each year. Though then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 trip stole most of the headlines, there were two other Taiwan delegations in 2022, followed by five in 2023, when more lawmakers traveled to the island than in any of the preceding five years.

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Graphic: The number of Congressional delegations to Taiwan since 2019, as well as the number of total lawmakers taking part. (Source: US Senate; The Wall Street Journal; Radio Free Asia; FAPA; American Institute in Taiwan; CNBC; PBS; The Diplomat; Office of the President, Taiwan; Taiwan News)

Even if lawmakers are not necessarily passing more Taiwan-related legislation, more frequent travel to Taipei points to a legitimate and lasting Congressional interest in the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.

Bills Introduced in 2023

In a final display of Congressional support for Taiwan, there has been a flurry of Taiwan-related legislative activity recently. In the past year alone, the following draft bills have been put forward: 

Since one of the main points of this analysis is that recent legislation relating to Taiwan has been more symbolic than substantive, it would be foolish to conclude that the bills above represent anything more than sustained Congressional interest in Taiwan. However, durable interest in any policy issue is significant. Further, while it is impossible to predict what percentage of these bills will pass, the raw increase in numbers is impressive. 28 Taiwan-related bills had been introduced as of early September 2023, seven short of 2021’s record (lawmakers introduced 35 Taiwan-related bills that year). The takeaway is clear: over the past five years, members of Congress have signaled a greater interest in Taiwan issues and an increased willingness to use staff and committee time on advancing Taiwan-related legislation.

The main point: While the US Congress is introducing more bills related to Taiwan, China, and the Indo-Pacific than ever before, relatively little of this legislation has been passed into law. Still, three of the major laws that have been signed since 2018 have had meaningful effects in terms of advancing US-Taiwan relations.

[1] For this analysis, the author used Legiscan’s database of all Congressional bills introduced from 2009 to the present.