America now has a ‘One China, One Taiwan’ policy: TIFA and TIPA will Strengthen it

The Biden administration continues to build on the Trump team’s unprecedented efforts to deepen U.S relations with Taiwan.  

Without either administration explicitly declaring it, their combined policies have effectively transformed Washington’s ritualistic “One China” formula while paying it deferential lip service.  The Trump and Biden teams have instituted policies that de facto nullify one of the “three nos” Bill Clinton affirmed during his 1998 visit to Beijing: no Taiwan independence; no two Chinas; no one China, one Taiwan; no participation in most international organizations (actually four nos). 

Last week, Washington opened a new front in the campaign to elevate Taiwan’s status as the two countries revived a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), signed in 1994 but essentially moribund since then.

One of the main obstacles to negotiating a trade agreement under TIFA had been Taiwan’s unwillingness to purchase American pork and beef treated with additives. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen broke the logjam in 2020 over strong domestic opposition and announced that Taiwan would lift the ban.

With that hurdle overcome, the way was clear for serious talks potentially leading to a Free Trade Agreement, and the Trump administration seemed more likely to make it happen than any of its predecessors had been.  

But, despite the auspicious circumstances, the timing did not work because U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was immersed in the critical trade negotiations with China.  More than his inability to commit the necessary time and energy was involved. Beijing strongly objected to the Trump administration’s growing ties with Taiwan and warned that Washington would have to choose which trade partner was more important to its interests.

The political impasse over Taiwan’s economic status was reminiscent of the years-long delay that held up its accession to the World Trade Organization in the 1990s. Though Taiwan early on had qualified for WTO entry, Beijing insisted that China be admitted first and that Taiwan could enter only as the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (Chinese Taipei). The WTO acceded to Beijing’s demands and held up Taiwan’s admission until China got its economic house in order to barely meet the minimum standards in 2001.

Joe Biden, then vice chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted the linkage of accession for the cross-Strait rivals. At a hearing on Permanent Normal Trade Relations in July 2000, he said he long had supported linking trade with China to its progress on human rights, but now had changed his mind. One reason he cited for reversing his position was that Taiwan could then join. He argued that economic interdependence between the two new WTO members would reduce cross-Strait tensions. 

In 2020, China had even greater leverage since former President Trump placed all his political chips on getting a historic trade deal with China. But by the time Beijing’s negotiators had worn down Lighthizer and his team, the Phase 1 deal was a lot more modest than the original U.S. objectives, and Trump had far less to tout for his reelection campaign. With the election looming, time had run out on opening trade negotiations with Taiwan. It was now up to the Biden administration to start the TIFA process without having to please Beijing. Preliminary negotiations are under way and the prospect for deeper U.S.-Taiwan economic relations is good.

But the Biden team so far has left unattended a critical security matter on Taiwan that also languished during the Trump administration: the congressional initiative known as the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA), introduced in 2020 “to authorize the President to use military force for the purpose of securing and defending Taiwan against armed attack.” It was reintroduced in this Congress and is awaiting action.

TIPA envisions a wider range of Chinese military threats against Taiwan than the massive invasion of the main island recently deemed “highly unlikely” by Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley. TIPA is intended not only to prevent “a direct armed attack by the military forces of the People’s Republic of China,” but also to deter “the taking of [any island] territory under the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan” and China’s “endangering of the lives of members of the military forces of Taiwan or civilians within the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan.”

If passed by Congress, TIPA would directly repudiate Washington’s policy of strategic ambiguity as first enunciated by the Clinton administration when it told Chinese officials “we don’t know” what we would do if China attacked Taiwan; “it would depend on the circumstances.”

TIPA eliminates the critical loss of time that would be consumed in frantic administration and congressional debate under the urgent circumstances of an actual or imminent Chinese attack.  The Act provides for a preemptive congressional vote now to enable timely and thoughtful deliberation of America’s national security interests — before China’s current naval and aviation incursions suddenly become something more sinister.

TIPA addresses the legal and constitutional considerations, stating, “Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning … of the War Powers Resolution.”

And, it explicitly calls for the end of ambiguity: “It is the sense of Congress that … the President should release a public declaration that it is the policy of the United States to secure and protect Taiwan against any action of the People’s Republic of China described [above].”

Finally, TIPA also calls on China to meet its responsibilities for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait: “It is the policy of the United States to demand that the People’s Republic of China officially renounce the use or threat of military force in any attempt to unify with Taiwan.”

It is understandable that the executive branch under Biden, just as was true under Trump and all of their predecessors, would prefer not to have its hands tied by a clear security commitment to Taiwan. But anything less than strategic clarity keeps the door open for Beijing to believe it can get away with a quick strike on some piece of Taiwanese territory or on Taipei itself.

The growing danger was demonstrated again when Chinese leader Xi Jinping commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by promising that foreign nations that try to bully China will “get their heads bashed” (after calling recently for a “lovable” foreign policy). The CCP organ Global Times said Xi “expressed steel-like determination and confidence in reunification” — perhaps to match the Biden administration’s “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan.

TIFA and TIPA are the best answers to Beijing’s menacing rhetoric and actions. President Biden should announce his support for both.

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