China-US relations

Beijing hits out at US’ Taiwan travel bill as analysts warn of backlash

Taipei welcomes passage of legislation promoting ties with Washington, but Beijing calls for an end to official exchanges with the self-ruled island

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 6:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2018, 1:21am

Beijing protested to the United States on Thursday after the US Senate passed a bill aimed at forging closer ties between Washington and Taipei.

Taiwan officials welcomed the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act but analysts said the move would trigger more backlash from Beijing against the self-ruled island.

The bill says it should be US policy to allow officials at all levels to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts, permit high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the US under respectful conditions and meet US officials, and encourage Taiwanese economic and cultural representatives to conduct business in the United States.

The legislation was passed with unanimous consent from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and US President Donald Trump will have 10 days to consider the act before it automatically becomes law, even without his signature.

Taiwan’s Presidential Office said the government would hold talks with Washington on exchange visits, without elaborating. President Tsai Ing-wen meanwhile hailed the passage of the bill in a tweet, saying it was a symbol of America’s long-standing support for Taiwan.

But in Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the bill seriously violated the one-China principle and that the US should cease official exchanges with Taiwan.

“China is strongly dissatisfied with this and resolutely opposes it, and has already lodged stern representations with the US side,” Hua said in a daily press briefing on Thursday.

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province subject to eventual unification, by force if necessary, and has repeatedly warned the US and other countries against forging ties with Taipei or allowing visits by senior Taiwanese officials, especially the president and vice-president. Cross-strait relations have soured since Tsai became president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China policy.

Taiwan is meanwhile considering expanding its contact with the US, with a US-Taiwan defence industry conference to be held in the southwest city of Kaohsiung in May.

Lee Chih-horng, who teaches cross-strait relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said Beijing was unlikely to tolerate such exchanges, which it sees as a “state-to-state relationship”.

“The US is expected to send officials to Taiwan for a defence industry forum in Kaohsiung ... and this will provide a good opportunity for the US to test Beijing’s reaction,” Lee said, referring to the US-Taiwan Business Council’s plan to hold the forum in Taiwan. “I don’t think these will be senior-level officials though as the US won’t want to provoke Beijing any further.”

Taipei faces a tougher Beijing if Xi Jinping stays in power, analysts warn

Observers also said the passage of the travel bill created a dilemma for Taiwan and added to uncertainties over its relations with Beijing and the US.

“The US Congress has actually given the decision to the executive branch as to whether to allow high-level official exchange visits, so this gives the Trump administration leverage when it’s bargaining with China over various American interests,” said Philip Yang, president of the Taiwan Association of International Relations.

Taiwan could become a US pawn, he said, which was something the Tsai government must consider.

But he said the chances were slim of Tsai herself making an official visit to the US, or Trump visiting Taiwan.

“It is highly unlikely that the US will send top-level officials to Taiwan as it would be seen by Beijing as crossing the red line,” he said.

China’s reunification dream will remain out of reach as long as Taiwanese feel they don’t belong

Sun Yang-ming, deputy director of the Chinese Cyan Geese Peace and Education Foundation, a Kuomintang think tank, said while the passage of the travel bill appeared to be a diplomatic win for Taipei and a breakthrough in US-Taiwan relations, Tsai must look at the bigger picture.

“There is a possibility that Trump – known for his business mindset – might ditch Taipei after reaching compromises with China, and Tsai must also evaluate the impact on cross-strait relations, and whether Beijing could take its anger out on Taiwan by further suppressing it politically and internationally,” he said.

Ji Ye, a Taiwan affairs specialist from Xiamen University, said the bill would negatively impact Sino-US ties because it harms Beijing’s interests and goes against the one-China policy.

“In this sense, the mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries in the long term will be badly affected,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang