Donald Trump with former House Speaker Paul Ryan. Photo: Twitter

A US delegation arrived in Taipei this week to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), legislation passed by the US Congress in 1979 to help repair ties after then-president Jimmy Carter severed diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan in favor of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In 1978, the US was facing significant geopolitical challenges from the USSR, and Carter believed stronger ties with mainland China would help check Soviet power. Despite advice from Congress on the negative repercussions of abandoning its ally, Carter chose to back the PRC and withdrew diplomatic recognition of the ROC while annulling the mutual defense treaty signed with the ROC in 1955.

Forty years on, China has emerged as a strategic competitor to the US and a significant threat to Taiwan’s security. The threat to Taiwan was most recently evidenced on Monday when China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent 24 aircraft and five ships to conduct exercises near Taiwan.

The fleet of planes departed from southern China around noon, just as a large delegation from the US was breaking for lunch after a conference in Taipei titled “Taiwan Relations Act @ 40: Where We’ve Been, and What’s Next?” In response to the unusual timing of the fleet, Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu tweeted: “Right when we’re commemorating #TRA40 with #AIT, the PLA sent 24 aircraft & 5 ships to conduct exercises near #Taiwan. H-6 bombers also simulated attacks on south & southeast Taiwan. Too bad, Beijing. We won’t bow to a bully!”

The delegation included several former and current government officials and academics from the US gathered to discuss the history and future of the Taiwan Relations Act. They were encouraged to travel to Taiwan under the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) passed by the US Congress in February 2018.

The delegation to Taiwan was led by former US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, and included the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto US embassy in Taipei), James Moriarty; the chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson; the principal deputy assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Jane Nishida; the deputy assistant secretary under the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, David Meale; and House Representatives Don Bacon, Hank Johnson and Salud Carbajal.

The Taiwan Travel Act was enacted to help counter the lack of sufficient high-level communication following the severance of official diplomatic ties with the ROC in 1979. Hoping to rectify “the self-imposed restrictions that the United States maintains on high-level visits with Taiwan,” the TTA encourages visits to Taiwan by US cabinet members and other high-ranking officials as “an indicator of the breadth and depth of ties.”

The US president’s cabinet includes Vice-President Mike Pence and the heads of the 15 executive departments – Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, and the attorney general. Additionally, the cabinet includes the White House chief of staff and heads of the EPA, the Office of Management and Budget, the United States Trade Representative, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Small Business Administration.

The visit by Ryan and his esteemed delegation to help celebrate the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act on April 12, 1979, is no doubt useful in building ties between the US and Taiwan. Yet the visit of the former Speaker is more symbolic than substantive. Ryan, who retired from Congress in January, will now serve as a guest lecturer for political science and economics at the University of Notre Dame in the US state of Indiana and on the board of directors at Fox Corporation, the parent company of Fox News.

By arranging the presence of such a high-profile name as Paul Ryan in Taiwan to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the TRA, Washington and Taipei may have been intent on expressing the breadth and depth of their ties, but they must also have been aware the visit would draw a face-saving reaction from Beijing. Would Beijing’s reaction have been any stronger had Washington instead sent the secretary of commerce?

Choosing this most recent delegation was no easy task, but one hopes that in future, Washington can forgo creating headlines and drawing Beijing’s ire by sending fewer high-profile names to Taiwan and instead focus on arranging more lower-profile visits by the heads and their deputies of those executive departments where more cooperation is needed.

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