Taiwan’s international isolation puts a premium on symbolic gains, but those must always be weighed against possible consequences.
Five U.S. senators last week called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to invite President Tsai Ing-wen to address Congress during a joint session later this year as part of celebrations surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act. While expressing gratitude for the gesture, the Tsai administration has refrained from committing to such plans, a move that has sparked anger among a number of supporters from the pan-green camp.
In their Feb 7. letter to Pelosi, U.S. Senators Cory Gardner, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz — all Republicans — said such an address by Tsai would be “consistent with U.S. law, enhance U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific region, and justly reward a true friend and ally of the United States and the American people.”
There is no doubt that inviting Tsai, who heads one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia, would meet all the criteria for such an invitation, that it would be consistent with the Taiwan Travel Act, and that it would represent a “reward” to a steadfast U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific. How, then, can we explain the Tsai administration not immediately jumping on this unprecedented opportunity to speak directly to the American people, limiting itself to a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to the effect that President Tsai does not currently have plans to travel to the U.S.? Needless to say, for many people in the (deep) green camp, such hesitancy has attracted various accusations of “weakness,” “cowardice” — and worse.
The point that most of those critics seem to be missing is that the mooted invitation is no simple matter, and a hasty decision could well backfire. For one thing, only a handful of Republicans have issued the proposal, which by no means signified universal support. Also, we do not know whether the Tsai administration was consulted by the quintet before they made the letter public. Should the Tsai administration immediately signal its enthusiasm for an address to Congress, only for it to be shot down by Pelosi, the Democrats in the House or the executive branch of U.S. government, it would constitute a loss of face for Taiwan and a slap in the face for Tsai, one that possibly could have been avoided by having adopted a more patient, and cautious, approach (over in The Diplomat, Gerrit van der Wees argues that Pelosi should extend the invitation to Tsai).
Another factor is that notwithstanding the fact that the invitation comes from senators, preparations for an address by the Taiwanese president would necessitate the involvement of various government agencies from both countries, among them the State Department, MOFA, the countries’ respective National Security Councils, the White House and the Presidential Office (we also do not know whether the U.S. executive branch was consulted by the senators before the letter was sent). Thus, a Congressional invitation does not occur in a political vacuum: it inevitably involves other players from the executive branch. A hasty embrace of the invitation by the senators could wrong-foot U.S. government agencies, whose continued support (e.g., State) Taiwan needs for a variety of ongoing bilateral efforts. (It is clear, from the various interactions I have had with U.S. officials in recent months, both in Taiwan and in Washington, D.C., that the executive branch of the U.S. government is quite happy with Tsai’s performance to date; it would be a shame for her administration to sabotage this over a proposed speech.)
That isn’t to say that a Tsai address to Congress should not happen. Making such a call now would be premature. But at a minimum, every possible outcome, every cost and gain, should be carefully studied, weighed and taken into consideration before either side commits to such a course of action. And that takes time.
The proposed invitation, furthermore, takes place in a (highly complex) geopolitical context. While some have emphasized the high symbolism that would result from an address by the Taiwanese president — and indeed Taiwan’s international isolation puts a premium on symbolic gains — such a development would perforce have to be weighed against possible consequences, chief among them, as Richard Bush over at the Brookings Institution argued last week, the high likelihood that Beijing would retaliate against Taiwan by intensifying its threatening posture and interference, and the harm this could cause to Sino-American relations, something that State, the NSC, and the White House, among others, are unlikely to take lightly.
Therefore, such decisions cannot be taken lightly. Mishandling this issue could increase tensions and end up hurting Taiwan by making it more difficult for the island-nation to make substantive gains elsewhere, such as enhancing bilateral ties with the U.S. in other areas. If an address ended up doing more harm than good to Taiwan, then it might not be worth jumping on this opportunity.
That isn’t to say that a Tsai address to Congress should not happen. Making such a call now would be premature. But at a minimum, every possible outcome, every cost and gain, should be carefully studied, weighed and taken into consideration before either side commits to such a course of action. And that takes time. This, arguably, explains why the Tsai government’s reaction to the touted invitation has thus far been one of sobriety rather than excitement. Tsai’s critics can accuse her of being a “KMT puppet” all they want, and they can lambaste academics like Bush (who knows a thing or two about how governments navigate the complex triangular relationship) for counseling a careful approach to this. But in the end, what they need to understand is that Taiwan’s interactions with foreign partners must always be governed by slow consideration, not brash emotional decisions. That is what good, responsible diplomacy is all about.
Top photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page.
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