Taiwan Hails Republican Bill to Formalize U.S. Ties, but Experts See Flaws

The Taiwanese government expressed its gratitude to two Republican congressmen on Tuesday after they introduced a bill to scrap the United States' one-China policy and re-establish formal relations with Taipei.

Analysts, however, have raised concerns about the presentation of the text and what appear to be uncertainties surrounding significant terminology in Taiwan policy discussions.

House Republicans Tom Tiffany and Scott Perry introduced the non-binding concurrent resolution on Friday.

The bill, almost identical to one tabled by Tiffany last September, also calls for the negotiation of a free-trade agreement between Taipei and Washington, as well as support for Taiwan's membership in international organizations.

Washington switched formal diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Interactions with the island nation have been guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of the same year and later the Six Assurances of 1982.

Beijing, meanwhile, deems any relationship with Taipei—official or otherwise—to be a violation of its "one-China principle," under which it claims sovereignty over democratic Taiwan.

"For more than 40 years, American presidents of both political parties have repeated Beijing's bogus lie that Taiwan is part of Communist China—despite the objective reality that it is not," Tiffany, who represents Wisconsin's 7th District, said in a press release on Monday. "It is time to do away with this outdated policy."

The bill, which would not be enforceable even if passed by both houses of Congress, describes America's one-China policy as "obsolete" and failing to serve the peoples of Taiwan or the United States.

Washington's one-China policy is purposely ambiguous when it comes to the status of Taiwan. It offers no explicit recognition of Beijing's claim over the island, a position which has left room for successive administrations to engage with Taipei as an unofficial partner.

An example of this emerged last month when State Department spokesperson Ned Price was able to reaffirm the U.S.' one-China policy while expressing the Biden administration's "rock-solid" support for Taiwan at the same time.

"America doesn't need a permission slip from the Chinese Communist Party to talk to its friends and partners around the world," Tiffany said in his statement. "Taiwan is a free, democratic and independent country, and it's time U.S. policy reflected that fact."

I, along with @RepScottPerry, re-introduced the bill to do away with the "One China Policy".

For over 40 years, American presidents of both political parties have repeated Beijing’s bogus lie that Taiwan is part of Communist China – despite the objective reality that it is not.

— Rep. Tom Tiffany (@RepTiffany) March 1, 2021

The bill's co-sponsor Perry, the Republican representative for Pennsylvania's 10th District, added: "As an independent Nation that proudly collaborates with Taiwan across a wide spectrum of issues, it's long past time The United States exercised our sovereign right to state what the world knows to be true: Taiwan is an independent country, and has been for over 70 years."

Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University spending the current academic year in Taipei, suggested that the congressmen appear to have confused the U.S.' one-China policy with Beijing's one-China principle in their text. Congressman Tiffany's office denied any confusion.

"Communist China has weaponized the so-called 'One China Policy' to block Taiwan's membership and full participation in international organizations and events ranging from the United Nations and the World Health Organization to the Olympic Games," the bill authors write.

Taiwan had briefly enjoyed observer status in the World Health Assembly before the election of its current president, Tsai Ing-wen, in 2016. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, her government failed in its campaign for WHA participation because of pressure from China, according to Taiwan's health minister Chen Shih-chung.

The country still competes regularly in the Olympics but uses the agreed name "Chinese Taipei" instead, forgoing both its flag and national anthem.

In their press release, Tiffany and Perry noted that the introduction of their legislation coincided with Taiwan's marking of the February 28 massacre of 1947, an incident that preceded 38 years of martial law in a period known as the White Terror.

The House Republicans said the massacre "triggered Taiwan's democratic transformation," but according to Brookings scholar Sheena Greitens, the congressmen seemed to have confused it with the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979—another seminal moment in the island's post-war history. Congressman Tiffany's office again denied any confusion.

"I would say that [the February 28 incident] is a highly symbolic event and a focal point for commemorating the abuses of the White Terror and martial law era," Greitens said.

"The Kaohsiung Incident was more directly related to the struggle for democratization given that the targets of it were pro-democracy activists, and it did more directly catalyze a push for democratization in Taiwan."

Any legislation about Taiwan should be "carefully worded," Lewis told Newsweek. "That includes getting terminology correct, like one-China policy versus one-China principle."

Citing the bill's adversarial mentions of China's ruling Communist Party, she said there was a tendency for Taiwan policy to be about China policy: "Instead, we want to make sure that Taiwan policy is about Taiwan."

Lewis said she welcomed more U.S. attention on Taiwan, including arguments for a potential trade agreement, but said it needed to be done in a "very thoughtful manner."

Her concerns were shared by Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University in Taipei, who tweeted: "This bill is frustratingly shallow in its understanding of both Taiwan history and Taiwan policy."

Nachman said it "reads like a bad attempt to use Taiwan to stick it to China rather than policy for Taiwan's sake."

A spokesperson for the Office of Congressman Tiffany denied there was any confusion in the bill's phraseology.

"There is no confusion. Both the more draconian 'One China Principle,' which some foreign governments adhere to at Beijing's insistence, and the 'One China Policy' reflected in U.S. executive branch policy since the 1970s, have served as a major impediment to Taiwan's international breathing space," a statement said. "The latter has served as an obstacle to normal U.S. bilateral ties with Taipei for going on half a century, and should be abandoned."

"There were of course many events over the years in Taiwan on its long road to becoming a vibrant democracy, and one of those was the [February 28] incident and its aftermath," Tiffany's office said. "Of course, scholars and academics can and often do disagree about the degree to which various events catalyzed that movement."

The office cited the Foreign Policy Research Institute paper Taiwan's White Terror: Remembering the 228 Incident, which notes demands made by the public for basic freedoms in the aftermath of the massacre.

In response to concerns about the legislation's aims and its mentions of the Chinese Communist Party, the statement said: "The purpose of the resolution is clear: that the United States should resume normal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement with Taiwan, and support Taiwan's membership in international organizations.

"Also the Chinese dictatorship—which engages in wide-scale human rights abuses, including what many human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have declared to be a genocide—is a repressive one-party state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, so these references are simply factual."

Greitens, an associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, said: "Wording in the United States' policy toward China and Taiwan has always been really important, because seemingly minor changes in phrasing can be interpreted as major changes in U.S. policy.

"However, this is not limited to China or Taiwan policy—the Biden administration has had to clarify accidental word choices twice in Asia policy statements already, once on Jen Psaki's use of the term 'strategic patience' and once when the Pentagon spokesperson [John Kirby] appeared to have endorsed Japanese sovereignty in the Senkakus, which would have been a change in official U.S. position."

Greitens said it is now increasingly important to understand these distinctions as U.S. national security policy focuses more attention on Asia.

"[P]eople who don't focus on Asia are going to have to get up to speed on these issues, which means understanding how language has been used to send diplomatic signals, and what certain changes in language are going to mean to audiences in the region," Greitens said.

It is equally important that news media and policymakers clearly state the U.S.' position on foreign policy matters so that the American public can engage in meaningful discussions about any potential change in policy, she added.

Taiwan's foreign ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou expressed the government's gratitude to Tiffany and Perry in a statement sent to Newsweek.

Members of Congress have shown their "strong support" for U.S.-Taiwan relations through "concrete actions" over the years, she said.

Taipei would be monitoring the bill's progress while maintaining close contact with friends in Congress and the executive branch, Ou added.

Recent legislation that has the potential to progress bilateral ties include the Taiwan Travel Act of 2018 and last year's TAIPEI Act. The former allows for high-level diplomatic visits between Taipei and Washington, while the latter advocates for Taiwan's inclusion in international organizations where statehood is not a requirement.

We want to make sure that Taiwan policy is about Taiwan.
Margaret Lewis, Seton Hall Law

During the Trump administration, Tsai's government said relations with Washington were at a "historic high." Vocal support for the island's democracy and security has continued under President Joe Biden, while Beijing says U.S.-China ties remain in their most serious state since relations were normalized more than 40 years ago.

Despite the backing of Biden officials and lawmakers in D.C.—sentiment which almost inevitably comes with escalating military pressure from China—Tsai has pledged to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and continue her country's role as a responsible player in the region.

Tiffany and Perry's bill describes Taiwan as a "steadfast ally of the United States and a responsible and conscientious member of the international community." Beijing has accused Tsai of "colluding" with America in order to push Taiwan toward "secession" from China.

"We will neither bow to pressure nor act rashly when we have support," Tsai said during a Lunar New Year address, in which she stressed the public could be confident about Taiwan's security in the face of mounting threats from the Chinese military.

"Tsai Ing-wen has been careful and calibrated in how she speaks about Taiwan and how she uses even the visuals," said Professor Lewis, referencing the president's continued use of official Republic of China symbols, such as its flag, while still promoting Taiwan's own identity.

It showed Tsai to be a "practically minded leader," Lewis concluded.

Taiwan is among the policy areas that has historically seen bipartisan support in Washington, according to both Lewis and Greitens. Analysts in Taipei have described it as the "Taiwan consensus."

Greitens said this provided "a sounder foundation for Taiwan policy than having big partisan political divergences."

Update 3/4/21, 1 p.m. ET: This article was updated to include additional comment from Congressman Tiffany's office.

Correction 3/4/21, 6:40 a.m. ET: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Margaret Lewis's name.

Flag Flies Above Taiwan Presidential Office
File photo: Taiwan's Presidential Office building is seen in Taipei on January 13, 2021. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images