Written by Shirley Kan.

The U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, and President Trump signed the bill into law on March 16, 2018. The Act is non-binding legislation to encourage enhanced engagement between senior U.S. and Taiwanese officials.

Nonetheless, China’s protests and international media reports have raised controversies about the legislation in the House and Senate and about whether the President should have signed the bill. During Congressional consideration last August, China’s ambassador in Washington sent an egregious letter to Members of Congress, threatening “severe consequences” for U.S.-China ties if Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act and other legislation supporting Taiwan.

After the President signed the legislation, China’s officials called on the U.S. to correct the “mistake” and complained that the Act “violated” China’s “one China” principle, sent wrong signals to “pro-independence separatist forces in Taiwan,” and interfered in China’s “internal affairs.” China’s protests had failed. What are the Act’s important implications? What are some next steps to consider in Washington, Taipei, and European and other capitals?

Taiwan Travel Act Becomes Law

Long-time Congressional supporters of a stronger partnership with Taiwan, Representative Steve Chabot and Senator Marco Rubio, introduced bills for the Taiwan Travel Act in the House and the Senate, respectively, in January and May 2017. After the House and Senate passed the House’s bill in January and February 2018, the President signed the legislation, and it became Public Law 115-135. The Taiwan Travel Act critiques the state of the U.S.-Taiwan bilateral partnership as having “suffered from insufficient high-level communication due to the self-imposed restrictions that the United States maintains on high-level visits with Taiwan.” The Act expresses the sense of Congress that the U.S. Government should encourage visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials at all levels.

The Taiwan Travel Act also states that it should be U.S. policy to allow officials at all levels of the U.S. Government (including Cabinet-level national security officials and military general officers) to travel to Taiwan. In addition, U.S. policy should allow Taiwan’s high-level officials to enter the United States and to meet with U.S. officials from the Departments of Defense and State and other Cabinet agencies. Furthermore, the Act states that U.S. policy should encourage Taiwan’s office that serves as an embassy in Washington in the absence of diplomatic ties to conduct business in the United States, including activities with U.S. federal and local officials.

Implications for the U.S. Policy and Leadership

The Act does not use mandatory language. Nonetheless, in the broader context, the Taiwan Travel Act is an important political and bipartisan statement about policy from both the Congress and the President. There was an interesting omission. On March 16, 2018, the President signed the legislation into law without any qualifying condition.

U.S. enactment of the Taiwan Travel Act signals a significant political message to counter Beijing’s attempts at bullying and interfering in political processes on U.S. soil. The Act also signals support for a stronger, democratic Taiwan facing China’s threats, support that serves international interests of Indo-Pacific stability and rules-based order. Moreover, the United States demonstrates that it will define our own “one China” policy and will not bow to China’s dictates of its “one China” principle. The approval of Act also bolsters U.S. leadership internationally to promote principled partnerships between countries and Taiwan.

The Taiwan Travel Act is not radical legislation. Over the years, U.S. officials have implemented important incremental improvements in engagement with Taiwan, consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Contrary to the State Department’s claim of U.S. “unofficial” ties with Taiwan, the TRA did not define the bilateral relationship as “unofficial.” The Taiwan Travel Act is consistent with a view of the security and economic partnership with Taiwan as important in its own right, not a tool or subset in policy of dealing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, Taiwan never was a part of the PRC.

Looking narrowly at the Taiwan Travel Act, Members of Congress and officials in the Executive Branch do not need the law to allow travel to Taiwan. There are self-imposed restrictions on high-level contact, particularly in the State Department’s Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan that bind the Executive Branch (not Congress). U.S. policymakers may choose to send senior-level officials or relax the restrictions in the Guidelines, if so determined. For example, even Cabinet-rank officials may visit Taiwan long before this act, but it has been a policy decision whether to do so. After 1979, Cabinet-rank officials visited Taiwan in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2014. They were officials in charge of trade, business, transportation, energy, or the environment. Thus, the Taiwan Travel Act encourages travel by Cabinet-level officials related to national security, but it is unlikely that the Secretaries of Defense or State will travel to Taiwan.

Next Steps in Washington, Taipei and Other Capitals

In Washington, an issue is whether to allow more visits between officials of the U.S. and Taiwan. In Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton’s  response to follow-up questions from Senator Rubio after her hearing in February to seek the Senate’s confirmation of her position, she promised to seek opportunities for visits to Taipei and Washington by senior-level officials that advance the “unofficial” relationship and substantive talks. Another issue is whether to send a Cabinet-rank official to Taiwan, given the four-year gap so far. In addition, an issue is whether to relax the State Department’s Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan and other restrictions on the Executive Branch’s contacts with Taiwan, including visits by U.S. military general and flag officers. In future “transits” by Taiwan’s President or Premier, would there be meetings with senior U.S. officials other than Members of Congress?

Looking at the long term, some observers urge enhanced engagement as well as normalization of the relationship with Taiwan. In Taipei, leaders might stress their own efforts to engage with U.S. and other foreign officials in substantive ways that result in international economic and security benefits. Would such engagement serve strategic, sustained partnerships better than short-term, symbolic contacts? In some occasions, Taiwan has not taken advantage of meetings with results in trade, defense, etc.

Other capitals, particularly those of fellow democracies, might examine their approaches to official contacts with Taipei. Are there opportunities to enhance engagement with Taiwan? Would the twenty countries (including the Vatican) that maintain diplomatic relationships with the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s formal title, sustain the status quo? Could support expand for Taiwan’s contributions and participation in international organizations?

Furthermore, could countries or commonwealths contribute pertinent perspectives, historical records, and legal lessons for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question over the long term? For example, is there a useful lesson from the German model? In 2012 and 2014 in Taipei, then ROC President Ma Ying-jeou invoked the German experience. The Basic Treaty of December 21, 1972, recognized two German States in a special relationship, and the two sides opened permanent legations, not embassies, in both German states.

Is there a lesson from the Korean experience? Last January, a professor in Seoul wrote about a debate concerning the South Korean President’s outreach to North Korea for the Winter Olympic Games. The critique charged his outreach as an “anachronistic idea of romantic nationalism that puts emphasis on ethnic factors such as blood, language, and culture,” despite North Korea’s existential threat to South Korea. The commentary contended the alternative approach that “the reunification of Korea, if it ever comes, must be based on the creation of a common political and economic system and not just on ethnicity”.

Shirley Kan is a Retired Specialist in Asian Security Affairs who worked for the U.S. Congress at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) and other parts of the U.S. Government. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.


  1. I am inclined to think that there is much noise over nothing after reading that when “looking narrowly at the Taiwan Travel Act, Members of Congress and officials in the Executive Branch do not need the law to allow travel to Taiwan”. Does this mean that the Taiwan Travel Act contains just some friendly words for Taiwan without much consequence? Why is China making a nuisance of itself over such a non-act?

    Yesterday the New York Times reported: “On a local news talk show last week, Ms. Tsai rejected an assertion that Taiwan was being helplessly drawn into tensions between the United States and China. ‘Many people say we are pawns of other people,’ she said. ‘But don’t forget, we are also chess players.’

    Taiwan is indeed a pawn in the contest between the United States and the PRC.

    If Ms. Tsai’s government is a chess player, too, then this fact is well hidden. But why not, concealed strategic moves are hard to defend against. However, if the Taiwan Travel Act was the result of an ingenious chess move by Taiwan’s government then we only can hope that further moves will lead to more substantive gains.

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