The US position on Taiwan will not waver, regardless of the results of the midterm elections

  • Zoe Leung and Michael Depp say given that Republicans and Democrats agree on an anti-China stance, support for Taiwan will continue
  • There is bipartisan consensus that Taiwan increasingly serves as an important strategic asset to the US as it takes on China in Asia
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 8:35pm

In many ways, the 2018 American midterm elections represented a massive change in Washington; Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives by a wide margin, while the Republicans slightly increased their control over the Senate. But there is one area in which this change will not be felt: US policy towards Taiwan.

Congress has traditionally been supportive of Taiwan, and this bipartisan position will continue even with a flip in the House. More importantly, hardening resistance to Beijing and strengthening cooperation with Taiwan will be mutually reinforcing, not only within this administration and legislature but even beyond Donald Trump’s presidency. 

The US Congress is at once the holder of considerable power and impotent in foreign affairs. Its power primarily derives from its constitutional control of the budget, the ability to declare war and critical oversight over federal agencies through authorisations and investigations. Its impotence stems from its consistent abdication of these foreign policy capabilities to the president, as Congress has ceded most decision-making power to the executive branch – the most recent example being its lack of desire to act on trade negotiations, such as tariffs.

After midterms, Donald Trump has no incentive to quit his trade war

Despite this seeming irrelevance, on the issues of cross-strait relations, Congress has always been eager to help Taiwan since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. With this traditional position in sync with a White House that is openly supportive of Taiwan, arms sales packages and other legislation to reassure US strategic commitment to Taiwan have faced little resistance in Trump’s presidency.

In recent years, Congress has intervened in Taiwan policy with several bills. Chief among these is the National Defence Authorisation Act, which reinforces the prevalent view in Washington that China is a strategic competitor to the United States. Critically, this US$717 billion defence spending bill contains provisions that include helping Taiwan strengthen its defence and security capabilities vis-à-vis China, continuing to bar Beijing from participating in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, a biennial maritime warfare exercise hosted by the US, unless it ceases reclamation and weaponisation in the South China Sea, and banning the US government from using equipment from Huawei or ZTE.

The act was co-sponsored by Congressman Adam Smith, the senior Democrat set to chair the House Armed Services Committee in the 116th Congress, who has openly supported arms sales to Taiwan. These measures echo a bigger, bipartisan view that Taiwan increasingly serves as an important strategic asset to the US in its competition with China in Asia and that support for the island is critical to American interests.

Taiwan: a pawn in Trump’s plan to take on China in everything

Another conspicuous piece of pro-Taiwan legislation is the Taiwan Travel Act, which was signed into law by Trump in March 2018, having received unanimous support from both chambers of Congress, despite denouncement from Beijing. The act opens up official contact at all levels between officials in Washington and Taipei. It was first introduced by Republicans Steve Chabot and Marco Rubio in 2016, who will both sit in the 116th Congress. While the act is neither binding nor a requirement for bilateral exchange, its unchallenged congressional support signals bipartisan approval of enhancing the security of Taiwan in the face of Chinese pressure across the strait.

This only bolsters Trump’s policy of resistance and confrontation towards Beijing. From labelling China a “revisionist power” in the National Security Strategy, to a broader representation of China hawks in the White House, and laying out a cascade of grievances in the latest speech by US Vice-President Mike Pence, this administration has displayed its determination to use Taiwan as part of concerted efforts against Beijing. To that end, it has not hesitated to exert pressure on countries that switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China, escalating US-China competition in pressure campaigns around the world.

This tougher line towards Beijing has filtered not only through the executive branch and the current Congress but has extended throughout the country as new incoming elected officials have espoused these views. Foreign policy never features strongly in American elections, especially midterm elections.

Beyond the midterms, China hawks will remain the rule in Washington

Nevertheless, new members of the 116th Congress, when discussing China, were quick to mention it in the context of being an unfair or unreliable trade partner, or a major geopolitical rival. Candidates leveraged a harder line towards China on the campaign trail which only serves to reinforce the feedback loop of creating a Congress that is increasingly tough on China. As long as Washington – and those who craft and support American foreign policies – maintain this view, support for Taiwan will remain self-sustaining.

In early 2019, Republicans’ two-year control of both chambers of the US Congress will end, but US-China relations is one of the few policy areas that will see continuity. The strategic notion of Beijing as a rival to be managed, especially through leveraging relationships – such as with Taiwan – to carry forward its Indo-Pacific strategy, has become the prevailing frame of reference in Washington.

A more hard-line attitude towards Beijing is not an aberration that is only present in key figures of the Trump administration; it has unfortunately become a self-sustaining bipartisan consensus. As such, the 2018 midterm elections will have little effect on US policy towards Taiwan.

Zoe Leung is senior programme associate and Michael Depp is programme coordinator with the EastWest Institute, which creates constructive dialogues aiming at preventing conflicts. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute