Recently signed into law by President Trump, the Taiwan Travel Act opens the door for high-level exchanges between Taiwanese and American officials. Substance, not symbolism, should be the key factor deciding who meets whom, where and when.
Since U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this month signed the Taiwan Travel Act, a piece of legislation that encourages high-level exchanges between American and Taiwanese officials, reactions in some pro-Taiwan circles have been marked by elation, even leading some to suggest that President Trump himself should break with precedent and visit the island-nation for the opening of the U.S.’ brand new de facto embassy later this year.
The reception to the Act, a bill 12 years in the making which received bipartisan support in U.S. Congress, is understandable, given that Washington’s longstanding — albeit unwritten — policy of barring senior officials from Taiwan, a democratic ally and key economic partner in Asia, from engaging with their American counterparts was both illogical and undignified. Nothing in the U.S.’ “one China” policy or in the Communiqués prevented such high-level exchanges; the tacit rule was instead an olive branch to Beijing, which over the years succeeded in pressuring U.S. government into avoiding official contact with senior government officials from Taiwan.
The Act, therefore, doesn’t change anything in terms of the law. The only thing it does is to underscore and encourage high-level exchanges between the two sides. It is a reminder that such contact is possible — and altogether legal — under Washington’s “one China” policy. It also reaffirms the position, held by many, that the ban on meetings between senior officials from both sides was ultimately self-defeating and out of touch with reality.
That being said, this new permissiveness should be exercised with caution. Overreaching — either side jumping on the occasion to dispatch high-profile officials just to make a point — would be inadvisable. For one thing, sudden and unrestrained visits would surely (and unnecessarily) alienate Beijing, which in the current context would undoubtedly regard this as an affront and retaliate accordingly — against Taiwan.
Most of the high-level meetings that take place should, for the time being, do so behind closed doors or receive as little publicity as possible.
By no means does this signify that high-level exchanges should not take place — far from it. But those should prioritize substance over symbolism. We can assume, and hope, that advisers to presidents Trump and Tsai Ing-wen are aware of the need for restraint; if they aren’t, the need to act carefully must be underscored with them. Therefore, what this means is that most of the high-level meetings that take place should, for the time being, do so behind closed doors or receive as little publicity as possible. When publicity is necessary, both sides should carefully weigh the costs and benefits of such visibility — costs in terms of Chinese retaliation against Taiwan, and benefits in the quantifiable advantages that would accumulate from doing so for both Taipei and Washington. Net losses should be avoided. Any publicized high-profile visit that occurs simply for its symbolic value, however tempting it may be to do so, had better be avoided until the geopolitical context changes, or after such exchanges have been normalized following years of incrementalism and when Beijing has learned to live with this new fact on the ground.
Officials and spokespersons in Taipei and Washington, D.C., should also make it clear that the Taiwan Travel Act is pro Taiwan, not anti China; that is is a constructive effort to realign a relationship with current realities in Taiwan and Asia. It is not retaliation against, or part of the U.S.’ possible trade war with, China. Given the recent ascendancy of hawkish China skeptics around President Trump, it will be all the more important to differentiate the Act and what it means to accomplish from other U.S. policies that may indeed be of a more punitive nature toward Beijing. (I would even argue that a healthier relationship between Beijing and Washington would make it easier for top Taiwanese and American officials to meet publicly; conversely, escalating Sino-American tensions would make it likelier that Beijing would retaliate for contact between senior Taiwanese officials and their American counterparts.)
A state visit to Taiwan by President Trump would no doubt occasion a huge boost for Taiwan’s self-respect and for those who need that extra symbolism to underscore the island’s statehood, but it is difficult to imagine how such a risky initiative could benefit Taiwan in the long run, given that Beijing would be sure to retaliate in a way that likely would outweigh the propaganda value of Mr. Trump’s presence on Taiwanese soil. In the long term, Taiwan (and the U.S.) will benefit far more from disciplined (and if necessary “quiet”) diplomacy between high-level officials who are in a position to strengthen the bilateral relationship, and perhaps even to facilitate Taiwan’s connectivity with other major global actors which may also be reluctant to engage senior Taiwanese government officials due to pressure from Beijing.
Though undoubtedly — and understandably — tempting, photo ops and splashy newspaper headlines surrounding high-level visits isn’t the best way to take the U.S.-Taiwan relationship to the next level. Symbolism, or “sticking it to the Chinese,” isn’t good policy. Substance is.
Top photo: Donald J. Trump Facebook page.