Taiwan and Congress: It’s Not 1979 Anymore

Taiwan and Congress: It’s Not 1979 Anymore

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Taiwan and Congress: It’s Not 1979 Anymore

Foreign policy is typically thought of as a function of the executive branch, of negotiated treaties and diplomatic summits. Yet Congress has an equally important role to play in US foreign policy decision-making and oversight through treaty ratification, nomination confirmations, money allocation, and legislation. Yet nowhere is the importance of Congress’ role in foreign policy more evident than in US policy towards Taiwan.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which has served as the foundation of US policy toward Taiwan since 1979. The TRA intended to secure US ties with Taiwan after President Carter unilaterally terminated the US-Taiwan mutual defense treaty and switched diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). President Carter did so with little consultation with Congress, prompting Congress to pass a prescriptive, bipartisan law detailing future US engagement with Taiwan and enshrining into US law that Taiwan’s future must be resolved peacefully.

The TRA in a Changing World

But it’s not 1979 anymore. In the past 45 years, Taiwan has grown into a successful democracy, while the PRC has turned into a techno-authoritarian state under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP has also actively changed the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Throughout the early 2000s, the PRC engaged in the general tenets of a peaceful resolution, including setting up official dialogues between China and Taiwan, respecting the median line in the Taiwan Strait, and establishing mail, telecommunications, shipping, and air travel linkages. Then, in 2016, after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was elected in Taiwan’s fourth peaceful democratic election, the PRC abruptly cut off all official dialogue and dialed up its military aggression.

By 2020, the PRC regularly sent warplanes and ships near and sometimes across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, and since 2022, the PRC has conducted “combat readiness patrols” around Taiwan. High-ranking PRC defense and party officials have employed increasingly inflammatory rhetoric to threaten Taiwan’s future, while Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) himself has stated that China will “never promise to give up the use force” against Taiwan. This is not to mention the PRC’s massive military and nuclear buildup, one that has the capability to be “ready to invade Taiwan by 2027,” and that practices “simulated attacks” on key Taiwanese landmarks and logistics nodes.

This change in the status quo is challenging the obligations that the United States adopted under the TRA. As eloquently stated by Nadia Shadlow in her recent Wall Street Journal article, “policies to keep the status quo require constant recalibration to maintain deterrence.”  Nowhere is this recalibration more evident than in the flurry of legislation introduced and passed in Congress over the past five years. The intent behind this legislation is not to upend the TRA, but to ensure the United States is implementing its commitments under the TRA in full. There are three major prongs in the TRA that confer obligations onto the United States:

  • “To provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character;”
  • “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;” and
  • “To make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

In each of these prongs, the United States is unfortunately falling short. However, Congress is trying to rectify these shortcomings.

Meeting the Obligations Set Forth in the TRA

First, the United States has not provided Taiwan with the defense services and articles necessary to ensure its own self-defense. Under the TRA, the United States has an obligation to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character, though what exactly constitutes arms of a “defensive character” has been subject to robust debate not limited to Taiwan. Yet the TRA sets the determination of these arms as “in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” and that “the President and Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgement of the needs of Taiwan.”  This makes clear that Congress has a role in determining what Taiwan needs for its defense—and by law, it is required to make those articles and services available.

Looking at the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait, it is clear that the United States has failed to live up to this obligation. The PRC’s total military manpower dwarfs Taiwan’s by more than 750 million, its defense budget is roughly equivalent to Taiwan’s entire GDP, and it has thousands more aircraft, artillery, missiles, and ships, not to mention a much wealthier and more dispersed logistics network to sustain that hard power. That is to say, if Taiwan were to spend its entire GDP on defense, it still would not match the military strength of the PRC due to its size and population.

Setting aside the long delivery timelines of weapons that have yet to make it into Taiwan due to US defense industrial base delays, Congress has passed historic legislation to open new pathways for Taiwan to acquire goods more quickly, like authorizing Presidential Drawdown Authority and Foreign Military Financing for Taiwan. Congress has also freed up authorities for Taiwan to participate in US military education and training, and urged the executive branch to prioritize arms sales to Taiwan.

Second, the United States has not maintained the capacity to resist the use of coercion and force against the society, economy, and security of the people of Taiwan. The United States has not put into place the strong economic ties necessary to ensure Taiwan is resilient to PRC economic coercion, and its rollback of its military presence in Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific has left Taiwan vulnerable to the PRC’s massive military.

The United States does not have a free trade agreement (FTA) with Taiwan, and unnecessary regulatory barriers like double taxation continue to limit the flow of investment between the United States and Taiwan. Without full access to the US market and international isolation, Taiwan was particularly vulnerable to economic dependency on the PRC. While Taiwan is diversifying its economy and its export reliance on the PRC has fallen nearly 40 percent—reaching the lowest point in two decades—its economy remains vulnerable to PRC coercion. Whether through brain drain, technology transfer and intellectual property theft, or cutting off Taiwanese imports at will, the PRC has the levers to send shockwaves through Taiwan’s economy. Moreover, Beijing has demonstrated that it is increasingly willing to use these levers because it has faced little to no repercussion from the United States. To strengthen Taiwan against this economic coercion, members of Congress have included anti-double taxation measures in the latest tax bill, asked the Biden Administration to include Taiwan in regional trade and economic frameworks, and publicly supported beginning negotiations on a FTA with Taiwan.

Moreover, it is clear that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is ramping up its aggressive military coercion – to the point where Taiwan and the United States cannot reasonably tell, in enough time, whether a military action is an exercise, an act of aggression, or a precursor to a kinetic attack. In addition to arming Taiwan with the necessary defensive capabilities through the pathways mentioned previously, the United States must also appropriately resource its own military assets and posture in the Indo-Pacific in order to maintain the capacity to resist force from the PRC. US generals have testified to Congress that the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) needs resources to deter the PRC more than ever before – something supported by many members of Congress.

Third, the United States has not made clear to the PRC that the US-China bilateral relationship will depend on how the PRC treats Taiwan. The TRA plainly states that “the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means(emphasis added). The CCP has challenged peace across the Taiwan Strait through economic coercion, inflammatory rhetoric, and military aggression, and yet the United States has imposed no costs on the PRC. Additionally, US officials have not warned PRC counterparts that, in accordance with US law, any means other than a peaceful resolution will call into question the US diplomatic relationship with the PRC. A key avenue of deterrence is credible threat – but in this case, no threat has been made.

Members of Congress have questioned how the executive branch has “prioritized the demands of Beijing over our support” of Taiwan, and introduced a series of bills to ensure our diplomats are not, contrary to US law, restraining themselves by not engaging with Taiwan or selecting to protect our relationship with the PRC at the expense of Taiwan’s defense.

In these ways, the United States has failed to uphold its own law in the Taiwan Relations Act. These failures, coupled with the PRC’s change in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, have spurred Congress to seek additional legislation to detail how the TRA should be implemented. In doing so, they are working to ensure that the US government is providing arms for Taiwan’s self-defense, maintaining the US capacity to resist coercion from the PRC, and preparing to impose costs on the PRC if it adopts non-peaceful means to unilaterally decide the future of Taiwan.

The main point: The United States has not lived up to the commitments it has made in the Taiwan Relations Act—to include ensuring that Taiwan possesses the necessary arms for its own defense, and that the US military maintains adequate capacity to resist the use of coercion against Taiwan. Congress has a significant role to play in ensuring that the United States lives up to its obligations as set forth in the TRA.