Taiwan may ramp up US lobbying effort to increase arms sales and boost trade from Washington

Contract talks with an ex-CIA operative’s lobbying firm are aimed to help Taipei secure ‘a bolder national security partnership’ and a free trade deal with the US

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 1:28am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 8:42am

Taiwan is pursuing more aggressive lobbying efforts in the US in a bid to procure more military arms and secure a bilateral trade agreement.

Potomac International Partners, a US lobbying firm, has had discussions with officials at Taiwan’s de facto US embassy about work that would include “helping Taiwan secure a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States and a bolder US partnership on national security”, according to documents filed with the US Justice Department.

If hired, Potomac would become the fifth lobbying firm doing work for the Taiwanese government in Washington this year.

Under a proposed one-year contract, initially worth US$360,000, Potomac CEO Mark D. Cowan, a former CIA operations officer, told the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) that his firm would strive to “persuade” US President Donald Trump’s administration to “push back” on Beijing’s “water, air and land grabs as a matter of national security” and “cast the movement toward a more regular schedule of arms sales” to Taiwan.

The proposed pact was laid out in a letter the firm sent to three TECRO officials, including Deputy Representative James Lee, filed with the Justice Department on March 24.

Potomac and TECRO did not immediately respond to the South China Morning Post’s request for comment about whether the discussions were continuing.

The talks show how the self-ruled island has been ramping up its investment in US lobbying, consulting and public relations firms to advance its cause in Washington.

China military ups strike power on US targets and Taiwan, says Pentagon

The discussions come as Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a wayward province to be brought into line, holds military exercises near the island, peels off Taipei’s diplomatic allies and tries to squeeze it out of involvement in international organisations.

Although the US has had no formal relations with Taiwan since Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the US maintains unofficial relations with the island and has been its sole defence supplier.

The Taiwan government’s lobbying efforts cost Taipei about US$3.32 million in 2017 – more than double the US$1.63 million that Beijing spent on its Washington lobbying the same year, according to data collected by the Washington-based Centre for Responsive Politics, an independent group that tracks the flow of money in US politics.

In his letter filed with the Justice Department, Cowan told the TECRO official that the parties’ next step would be “to sit down with your leadership team to assemble an action plan, prepare an initial message platform and finalise the list of key governmental targets”.

Taiwan leader visits Belize in drive to shore up alliances

Cowan, a member of Trump’s transition team, was also a former country desk chief in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and was an assistant legislative counsel to the director of Central Intelligence.

Foreign agents or lobbyists such as Cowan, who act on behalf of a “foreign principal” to influence US policy or public opinion, are required to register with the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). “Foreign principals” can include foreign governments, political parties and individuals outside the US.

Generally, FARA requires any foreign agent or lobbyist to file detailed public disclosure reports every six months.

Besides discussing potential contracts with Potomac this year, the Taiwan government has also continued service agreements with Gephardt Group and Nickles Group, US lobbying firms that are both led by former US congressional leaders, according to disclosure documents.

Gephardt Group CEO Richard Gephardt was US House majority leader from 1989 to 1995. Don Nickles, chairman and CEO of Nickles Group, held Republican leadership positions in the US Senate from 1996 to 2003, and was the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

US denies ‘one China’ change after Taiwan president’s California speech

The disclosure documents show that TECRO representative Stanley Kao, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US, signed the two agreements with Gephardt Group and Nickles Group, respectively valued at US$22,000 and US$18,000 monthly.

Alston & Bird and Daschle Group, two other lobbying firms that worked for the Taiwan government last year, continued to act on behalf of Taipei in 2018. Daschle is led by Tom Daschle, a long-time Democratic senator who was majority leader from 2001 to 2003.

Alston & Bird and Daschle Group have reportedly receiving respective payments of US$75,000 and US$50,000 from the Taiwan government so far this year, according to data provided by the Centre for Responsive Politics.

The firms have not yet filed documents detailing their latest reportable lobbying activities, but their 2017 disclosure papers provide glimpses of their work.

In March 2017, before Trump’s first meeting with President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Daschle Group had reached out to seek endorsements for a letter to Trump co-signed by four bipartisan co-chairs and members of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus, the documents reveal.

Warm, high-profile welcome for Taiwanese president in the US

The letter urged the Trump administration to “continue to provide defensive weapons to Taiwan predicated on Taiwan’s demonstrated military needs, and without any prior consultation with Beijing”. About three months later, the US State Department told Congress the Trump administration had approved its first arms sale worth US$1.42 billion to Taiwan.

Former US Senator Bob Dole, a special counsel to Alston & Bird, also worked as a lobbyist for the Taiwan government. A Republican and long-time Senate majority leader, Dole was paid US$140,000 between May and October 2016, according to a document filed with the Justice Department in November 2016.

Dole coordinated with Trump’s campaign and the transition team to set up a series of meetings between Trump’s advisers and officials in Taiwan, the document says.

Dole also arranged a meeting between former senator Jeff Sessions – now the US attorney general – and Kao and set up a White House tour for a visiting delegation from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

On December 2, two days after Alston & Bird filed the document with the Justice Department, Trump broke four decades of diplomatic protocol by talking on the phone with Tsai, drawing an official complaint from the foreign ministry in Beijing and prompting Foreign Minister Wang Yi to accuse Tsai of making a “petty” move.

Beijing ‘dissatisfied’ as US backs Taiwan and scrutiny of foreign firms

“The ‘one China’ principle is the foundation for healthy development of Sino-US relations,” Wang said. “We don’t wish for anything to obstruct or ruin this foundation.”

Dole spent six months working on these tasks behind the scenes and had long planned the Trump-Tsai call, according to multiple reports from US media that cited disclosure documents and interviews with people involved in the planning.

Dole was later quoted by The New York Times as saying the Taiwanese people are “very optimistic” and “see a new [US] president, a Republican, and they’d like to develop a closer relationship”.

To Beijing’s chagrin, US-Taiwan ties have been strengthening since Trump was elected in November 2016.

After Trump’s phone call with Tsai, the administration continued to rankle Beijing by approving a US$1.42 billion arms sale to the island, in June 2017, and signing into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages high-level Taiwanese officials to visit the US, in March.

Tsai Ing-wen visits Los Angeles during stopover in Latin America trip

It was under that legislation that Tsai made a two-day, high-profile stopover in Los Angeles earlier this week on her way to visit two Latin American allies. She told a welcome dinner on Sunday night that the island’s relationship with the US “has never been stronger”.

Tsai is expected to be back in the US again this weekend when she passes through Houston on her way back from Belize.