Has the Taiwan Travel Act Shortened the Gap Between Taipei and Washington?

Has the Taiwan Travel Act Shortened the Gap Between Taipei and Washington?

Chieh Chung writes that the passing of the Taiwan Travel Act is not only a sign that Washington is dissatisfied with Beijing, but is also an attempt to break new ground on Taiwan-US relations.

By Chieh Chung (揭仲)
Translation by Ai Xin (哀馨)

This article was originally published in The Initium in Traditional Chinese. It is translated and reprinted in English with permission of the publisher.

On June 10th, a name that was closely watched by national security officials and scholars in Taipei and Beijing was finally revealed: “Marie Royce”.

Royce, the United States’s Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, would represent the US government at the opening ceremony of the new American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) building in Taipei.

But political watchers in Taipei and Washington D.C. speculated a cabinet-level official could attend the event. National security officials in Taipei, however, were taking a pragmatic attitude, and refuted rumours that National Security Adviser John Bolton had been invited to attend.

“That would send a very strong signal to Beijing”, said officials. “President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) does not want to send such signal”.

Nevertheless, with three of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies breaking off relations in such a short period of time, many hope that Washington can send more high-ranking officials, as well as loosen restrictions for Taiwanese officials visiting the U.S.. On the battlefield of diplomacy, that would help Taiwan win back a round against China.

In fact, with the recent passing of the “Taiwan Travel Act”—a US law that allows high-level US government officials to visit Taiwan and vice-versa—Beijing has trodden delicately in the hope that Washington won’t use the new bill as a bargaining chip. But the ball is in Washington's court, and U.S. officials have stated that they regularly send officials to Taiwan to conduct relevant business.

With the completion of the new AIT building and the Taiwan Travel Act personally signed into law by President Donald J Trump on March 16th, expectations and speculation continue to rise.

Because the Act allows for U.S. officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan, the law has attracted a high level of interest. There are three special characteristics reflected in the Act: 1. There are many non-specific provisions in the law, 2. much of the content state's the status quo, and 3. there's plenty of wiggle room for all parties.

President Tsai Ing-wen attending the unveiling of the new AIT offices in June 2018. Image courtesy of the Taiwan Presidential Office.

President Tsai Ing-wen attending the unveiling of the new AIT offices in June 2018. Image courtesy of the Taiwan Presidential Office.

Before the Taiwan Travel Act, How did US and Taiwan officials conduct exchange?

To discuss the actual impact of the Taiwan Travel Act, we can start by looking at how U.S.-Taiwan relations have evolved since 1979.

Visits by high-ranking US officials had almost completely stopped after the Carter administration cut ties with Taipei, and switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing. Only national intelligence officers in charge of East Asian affairs received permission to travel.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the American Institute in Taiwan was established. In practice, AIT acts as a diplomatic office, but the AIT Director—an equivalent position to ambassador—refuses to accept any official diplomatic title, and will not accept invitations to participate in diplomatic envoy activities from Taipei.

In addition, diplomats must temporarily leave the State Department if they want to work at AIT, and active US military personnel are not allowed to serve in Taiwan. AIT office personnel cannot even negotiate with Taiwan government officials in official government buildings.

On the opposite side, the U.S. almost totally prohibited high-ranking Taiwanese officials from visiting the U.S. for a time after 1979. Government officials from Taipei were not able to enter U.S. government buildings, and many Taiwanese officials recall negotiating U.S. arms sales or technology transfers at the hotels where they stayed.

These excessively harsh and impractical laws had not only deeply humiliated Taipei, but also made it extremely inconvenient for the U.S. to deal with Taiwan affairs.

On top of that, the events of the June 4th incident in 1989 and the accelerated democratization process by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government had made U.S. diplomatic practices within Taipei look increasingly stubborn and outdated. Political circles in Washington protested and demanded reform.

One of the leading triggers for reform was President Lee Teng-hui’s transit through Hawaii in 1994. Lee had requested an overnight stay in Hawaii, but was only permitted a two-hour refuelling stop by the Clinton administration. Lee refused to deplane during the stop-over, and received then-AIT Director Natale Bellocchi on the presidential aircraft in pyjamas and slippers. The incident caused a major uproar on Capitol Hill.

That same year, the Clinton administration published the "Taiwan Policy Review”, which loosened restrictions for U.S. officials visiting Taiwan, and also allowed for Taiwanese officials to enter US government offices (except for the White House and the State Department).

Since then, restrictions for Taiwan’s top officials to visit the U.S. has gradually evolved. Taiwan’s President, Vice-President and Premier were still unable to make an official visit, but with considerations of “safety, comfort and convenience” they could apply to transit and stay for a short time, on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, Taiwan’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs and National Defense can officially enter the US, but not Washington DC.

In 1995, President Clinton permitted President Lee Teng-hui to “enter” the country to attend a reunion at his alma mater Cornell University, instead of merely "transiting". But due to a major backlash from both Beijing and the US executive branch, no US law allowing for Taiwan’s head of state to enter the US ever materialized, much to Taiwan’s disappointment. Only the receptions during transit stops received minor improvements.

Soon afterwards, events like the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, and disputes over the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu islands in Taiwan and China) and the South China Seas began to take shape, giving Washington more reasons to relax travel restrictions for military and civilian security officials.

With these events in mind, U.S. policy on official visits to Taiwan appears to have been the following:

  1. Cabinet-level officials from non-national security related departments are allowed to visit Taiwan.

  2. Ranking officials above the Assistant Secretary level from the Departments of State and Defense, as well as the White House National Security Council, are not allowed to visit Taiwan.

China's rise: Contact between US and Taiwan officials gradually relaxed

This March, Alex N. Wong, the U.S. State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, attended the American Chamber of Commerce's yearly dinner event in Taiwan and toasted with President Tsai Ing-wen. The gesture was considered a major diplomatic breakthrough.

But according to Shen Lyu-shun (沈呂巡), a former Taiwanese representative to the U.S., the State Department sent the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs—a position more senior to Wong’s—to the same event in 2016. What’s more, three deputy assistant secretaries visited Taiwan in the span of one week in March 2014.

Shen notes that 19 US Assistant Secretary level ranking officials or higher visited Taiwan during the Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) administration, including:

Two Administrators (the United States Agency for International Development and the United States Environmental Protection Agency), five Deputy Secretaries and Under Secretaries, four Assistant Secretaries of State, six Assistant Secretaries, one special envoy for human rights of LGBTI persons, and one Director of the National Weather Service.

In all fairness, if we are comparing cases of senior U.S. officials visiting Taiwan, it's likely that Taipei and some in Washington D.C. were let down by the passing of the Act. Although Marie Royce serves at the level of Assistant Secretary of State, she is not the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, nor is she the first assistant secretary of state to visit Taiwan.

As for the U.S. military, the U.S. has allowed active duty officers (with a rank no higher than colonel or captain) to work at AIT’s Taipei office since the year 2000. However, they must operate in the public as “technical aides”, not military attachés, and they cannot wear their uniforms.

President Tsai observing the 33rd Han Kuang exercises. Since 2003, the U.S. has sent a member of the military to observe Taiwan’s military exercises. However, the head of the U.S. delegation has always been a retired admiral. Photo courtesy of the Taiwan Presidential Office.

President Tsai observing the 33rd Han Kuang exercises. Since 2003, the U.S. has sent a member of the military to observe Taiwan’s military exercises. However, the head of the U.S. delegation has always been a retired admiral. Photo courtesy of the Taiwan Presidential Office.

The ranks of military officers visiting Taiwan was initially capped at colonel and captain, but this restriction has been gradually lifted. For example, Gibson Leboeuf, the admiral-ranking deputy chief of the U.S. Navy International Program Department, led a U.S. team to the Legislative Yuan to present a submarine deal on October the 30th, 2003.

In that same year, the U.S. began sending delegations of active duty officers to observe Taiwan’s Han Kuang military exercises. But the head of the delegation has always been a retired admiral.

As bilateral military exchanges between Taiwan and the U.S. deepens, the restrictions imposed on high-ranking military officials for visits had also been relaxed.

For example, former KMT legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) publicly confirmed that two-star general-ranking military officials had visited Taiwan during the Ma Ying-jeou administration. However, visits by brigadier-ranking military officials from the U.S. Department of Defense are still subject to strict restrictions.

On the other side of the Pacific, the number of Taiwanese top officials visiting the U.S. has also increased. Shen Lyu-shun notes that as many 64 Taiwanese ministers and deputy ministers visited the U.S. in the year 2015 alone.

The U.S.’s 1994 Taiwan Policy Review granted visits to officers ranking below chief of general staff, allowing them to meet with their U.S. counterparts. This was later adjusted to grant Taiwan’s Deputy Minister of National Defense a visit to the U.S..

The rules and regulations regarding official visits hasn’t changed much since 1994, but the attitudes of U.S. official has changed drastically. In the past, Taiwanese officials were required to keep a low-key profile during visits, but now the US is taking the initiative to publicize interactions with Taiwan’s top defense officials.

On October 2nd 2012, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the visit of then-Deputy Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) to the Pentagon with a photo of Yang and then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

On June 4th 2015, AIT posted a photo on their Facebook account of Yen Teh-fa (嚴德發) (Chief of the General of Staff of the ROC Armed Forces) and Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明) (Commander of the Republic of China Navy) attending an official ceremony of the U.S. Pacific Command.

And this May 30th, Deputy Defense Minister General Shen Yi-ming (沈一鳴) and admiral Lee Hsi-ming attended a ceremony for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

In addition to high-ranking generals, there are hundreds of instances of Taiwanese military personnel visiting the U.S., with the number of individuals visiting the U.S. reaching into the thousands.

Take 2015 as an example, where Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense publicly listed 111 visits abroad for 1,648 individuals. While In 2018, there were 118 visits abroad with 1,321 individuals, where the vast majority of these visits were to the US.

Do Taiwanese officials have the green-light to visit the U.S.?

The main text of the Taiwan Travel Act states that U.S. executive-level departments “should be” allowed to do the following:

  1. allow officials at all levels of the United States Government, including Cabinet-level national security officials, general officers, and other executive branch officials, to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts;

  2. allow high-level officials of Taiwan to enter the United States, under conditions which demonstrate appropriate respect for the dignity of such officials, and to meet with officials of the United States, including officials from the Department of State and the Department of Defense and other Cabinet agencies; and

  3. encourage the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, and any other instrumentality established by Taiwan, to conduct business in the United States, including activities which involve participation by Members of Congress, officials of Federal, State, or local governments of the United States, or any high-level official of Taiwan."

At first glance, the Taiwan Travel Act as a domestic law seems to be a major breakthrough that clears away all the past restrictions on Taiwan-U.S. visits. The law even green lights the President, the Vice President, the Premier and other high ranking Taiwan officials for potential visits to Washington. But the reality is much less optimistic.

For starters, the most critical part of the bill is merely suggestive rather than a mandatory law (highlighted in the use of the phrase "should be” rather than "shall be"). It’s up to the U.S. administration on how and when to implement the law.

As far as official visits are concerned, the bill only grants Taiwanese officials entry into the United States, not Washington, D.C.. Before the Act, Taiwanese presidents were only able to transit through the U.S., and could only hold private meetings in the U.S..

This provision is merely a restatement of the status quo, and it is still the prerogative of the U.S. executive branch on whether Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs or the Minister of National Defense can visit Washington, D.C..

The Act only states that Taiwanese officials may “enter the U.S.” and does not explicitly state “enter Washington D.C.”. As for articles in the Act that allow Taiwan’s president to enter the U.S., and even hold closed-door meetings, these simply enshrine what was already the status quo. Image courtesy of  Sonara Arnav .

The Act only states that Taiwanese officials may “enter the U.S.” and does not explicitly state “enter Washington D.C.”. As for articles in the Act that allow Taiwan’s president to enter the U.S., and even hold closed-door meetings, these simply enshrine what was already the status quo. Image courtesy of Sonara Arnav.

A small yet noteworthy point is that the bill has left out the White House from the list. Whether this is to be interpreted as all government sectors except the White House remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, the passing of the "Taiwan Travel Act" is still a huge step forward for Taiwan.

First, after the "National Defense Authorization Act" and the "National Security Strategy", the "Taiwan Travel Act" stands as the third crucial document or bill in less than half a year that is clearly directed at Beijing. The US executive branch and U.S. Congress will surely discuss and compromise on the specifics of the bill.

The fact that the Act could be passed and signed into law in such a short period of time with little political resistance signifies Washington’s dissatisfaction with Beijing. Meanwhile, Taipei could be further emboldened to try out new diplomatic opportunities to strengthen its relationship with Washington.

Second, although the Act to a large extent is merely putting current U.S. policy towards Taiwan into law, it has laid the ground for future communication between officials in Taipei and Washington, creating a major hurdle for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to limit mutual exchanges between Taipei and Washington.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Act is an important leverage for officials in Taipei and Washington who share the hope that U.S.-Taiwan relations can be improved. Through careful and precise implementation, both Washington and Taipei can navigate through the grey areas of the law in a favourable direction for Taiwan.

The Reagan Administration initially signed on to the Joint Communique of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China—commonly known as the "August 17 Communique “—under the guidance of then Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

However, when Secretary of State George Shcultz took over, Paul Wolfowitz (then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs), Gaston Sigur Jr. (then-White House National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs), and Richard Armitage (then-Deputy Secretary of State) had significantly cushioned the blow to Taiwan done by the Communique.

So what kind of impact will the Taiwan Travel Act eventually have? Here are some of my thoughts:

As mentioned above, although the Act has officially become U.S. law, it is still hardly an enforceable law. Whether and how the bill could go beyond the current status quo depends very much on the administration, until said implementations become norms.

However, even though the bill did not meet with any resistance from the U.S. administration when it was passed by Congress, U.S. State Department officials, generally speaking, are still irked by Taiwan's influence on policy-making through Congress.

Upon signing the "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018", President Trump issued a rare statement on provisions for Taiwan, stating the Act “could potentially dictate the position of the United States in external military and foreign affairs and, in certain instances, direct the conduct of international diplomacy.”

The statement also notes that "[the] Administration will treat these provisions consistent with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities as Commander in Chief and as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs to determine the terms on which recognition is given to foreign sovereigns and conduct the Nation’s diplomacy.”

The upcoming "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019" and the "Taiwan Defense Assessment Commission Act of 2018" are also "directive" in nature and will probably further annoy officials in the US State Department. Whether this will have adverse effect on future negotiations of the Taiwan Travel Act implementation is worthy for the Taiwan National Security Bureau to reflect on.

But keeping up momentum to secure more favourable laws should not be the top priority for Taiwan’s National Security Bureau. Rather, the priority should be to utilize the non-specificity created by the Taiwan Travel Act to negotiate more favourable policy precedents for Taiwan in a low-key yet incremental fashion. The focus should be to gradually increase bilateral military exchanges, so that the military on both sides can better coordinate in the future.

When answering media inquiries on March the 2nd, Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) implicitly stated that improving US-Taiwan relations will still depend on further negotiations with the U.S.. This is likely in consideration of not wanting to further provoke the U.S. administration.

With the passing of the Taiwan Travel Act, Taiwan’s National Security Bureau has reacted with pragmatism. However, when the Act was still under discussion, the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), a pro-independence lobbyist group, played a significant role in getting the bill passed. In fact, FAPA was able to wield more influence than the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S. (Taiwan's de facto embassy to the US).

The negotiations and lobbying for the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 and the Taiwan Defense Assessment Commission Act will likely also involve FAPA. How Taiwan’s National Security Bureau should coordinate with FAPA in order to avoid rushing the process is another problem they should put heavy thought into.

Chieh Chung is senior assistant research fellow at the National Policy Foundation. He received his doctoral degree from the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University.

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