The passing of the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) is symbolic rather than substantive. If the United States President Donald Trump had not signed it on March 16, the bill would have passed into law without his signature anyway.
Moreover, the high-level exchanges the act allows were a prerogative of the US government and have taken place in the past, most notably in 1996, when the former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui visited the US in the same year, provoking retaliatory missile tests by Beijing in the Taiwan Strait.
All the same, Trump’s signature does matter. It is yet another signal to China that its vociferous, sometimes petulant, demands for special treatment on the global stage are no longer yielding up the milquetoast pliancy they have in the past.
A statement issued by the Chinese embassy in Washington called the TTA a violation of the One-China Policy, adding: “China is strongly dissatisfied with that and firmly opposes it.”
An earlier op-ed published by Beijing’s mouthpiece tabloid, the Global Times, on Feb. 13 called the TTA “China’s red line.” It warned that were the act to be passed “the foundation of Sino-US relationship [would] be shaken and damage to the ties will be immeasurable.”
Expect further, more strident remonstrations in the days ahead.
Trump’s TTA signature is headline news on the self-ruled island. In recent months, ahead of the elections of Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan to president and vice-president respectively – and possibly for life – Beijing has been surreptitiously nudging Taiwan into a carrot-and-stick corner. And Taiwan is desperate to receive any sign that its situation is not going unnoticed.
Relations with Beijing have soured since the 2016 inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen, whose party platform does not endorse claims that Taiwan is Chinese territory.
Formal communications have been shut down and Taiwan finds itself, more than ever before, internationally isolated, its diplomatic allies reduced to a paltry 20, and its last remaining European ally, the Vatican, appearing poised to pivot to Beijing.
More recently, and in an altogether more threatening concert of moves, Beijing has been insidiously asserting its expansive territorial claims by bringing the so-called “salami-slicing” effect it has previously used in the South China Sea to bear on Taiwan airspace.
Ahead of the Lunar New Year this year, China attempted to unilaterally open its own flight routes to Taiwan. Nearly 200 flights were canceled. Taiwan maintained the new routes contravened a 2015 agreement and overlapped with airspace used by the island’s passenger and military planes amid an uptick in Chinese military drills that encroached on Taiwan airspace.
Taiwan’s biannual defense review, released in late 2017, documented 16 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drills carried out in the vicinity of the island in that year, calling them an “enormous threat,” the South China Morning Post reported.
Arguably, Beijing’s “stick” encirclement of Taiwan is business as usual, perhaps making it no surprise that it was a “carrot move” by China that has elicited the island’s most salient recent groundswell of angst.
The so-called “31 Incentives” announced by Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office in late February this year aim to “improve the rights of Taiwanese studying, working, living or starting a business” in China.
While Taiwan media have focused on scrambled government countermeasures to the incentives, few on the island really believe that China is genuine in trying to win hearts and minds, even with pocketbook sweeteners.
All appearances suggest that Beijing is resigned to having to take Taiwan by force eventually, and procedurally it is bound to offer the island favors as a prelude to throwing up its hands in a theatrical show of regret and taking the all-else-failed route to unification.
In short, the Taiwan Strait is polarized beyond meaningful rapprochement and Beijing makes no secret of the fact it is determined to assert its claim. To argue that, for the US, better relations with Taiwan, however tenuous, equal hostility to China, threatening regional stability, or that better relations will come at a severe cost to trade, is to ignore that the mainland is assertively undermining regional stability.
It has also never complied with WTO regulations by providing a level playing field for trade and routinely threatens a vibrant democracy with military force.
The TTA may be little more than a symbolic nod to Taiwan’s legitimacy. But as recently as October last year, when the Washington Post reported that the Chinese Embassy sent an “unusual” letter calling on the US House and Senate’s foreign relations and armed services committees to block the bills, few thought it would pass at all.
Its passing does not necessarily make Taiwan safer, but it sends a clear message to Beijing that Taiwan – a rare model of US-inspired democratic values – has not been forgotten and that bully-boy tactics can lead to pushback.