Effect of US politicians' frequent visits to Taiwan cannot be underestimated

Following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, visits by other US politicians have come fast and furious, with the latest a delegation led by Democrat Stephanie Murphy. But while these visits show US support for Taiwan, they also sometimes come with an agenda. How will Taiwan navigate such a situation amid pressure from Beijing?
This handout photo taken and released by Taiwan’s Presidential Office on 8 September 2022 shows Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (7th left) posing for a photo with a US congressional delegation led by US Representative Stephanie Murphy (6th from left) and other officials at the Presidential Office in Taipei. (Handout/Taiwan Presidential Office/AFP)
This handout photo taken and released by Taiwan’s Presidential Office on 8 September 2022 shows Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (7th left) posing for a photo with a US congressional delegation led by US Representative Stephanie Murphy (6th from left) and other officials at the Presidential Office in Taipei. (Handout/Taiwan Presidential Office/AFP)

A bipartisan delegation led by Democrat and House Armed Services Committee member Stephanie Murphy met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on 8 September, becoming the seventh US delegation this year to visit Taiwan, and the sixth since August.

Murphy’s visit did not cause much commotion in Taiwan, probably because the flurry of visits by US politicians has become second-rate news, compared with the news about Democratic Progressive Party’s standing in the local elections, and celebrity Rainie Yang’s comment that eating seafood is “extravagant” in Taiwan.

Good friends of Taiwan

Nonetheless, the effect of these frequent visits by US congress members cannot be underestimated. Murphy’s eight-person delegation is said to be the largest for the current US congress. At the meeting, Tsai said that Taiwan will continue to work with the US to forge even closer economic ties and sign a high-standard trade agreement, and hopes to sign an Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement.

Murphy echoed Taiwan’s call for a high-standard free trade agreement, but neither side revealed if there were discussions on military or intelligence cooperation.

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Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen meets US Arizona Governor Doug Ducey at the presidential office in Taipei, Taiwan in this handout image released 1 September 2022. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)

Since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in early August, five more delegations have visited Taiwan. Besides Murphy, there were a five-person delegation led by Democrat and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations East Asia, Pacific, Edward Markey on 14 August; Republican representative for Indiana Eric Holcomb on 21 August; Republican and Senate Armed Services Committee member Marsha Blackburn on 25 August; and Republican representative for Arizona Doug Ducey on 30 August.

Apart from personal beliefs, the purpose of the US politicians’ high-profile political support is also to raise their own profile and raise funds, with some politicians making very “open and transparent” commercial requests.

The Taiwan authorities have reiterated that these visiting US politicians are good friends of Taiwan, highlighting that even under pressure from Beijing, the US is showing firm bipartisan support for Taiwan. While this is true, there is also the element of political trade with various quid pro quos.

Commercial agenda

Apart from personal beliefs, the purpose of the US politicians’ high-profile political support is also to raise their own profile and raise funds, with some politicians making very “open and transparent” commercial requests. For example, on 15 April, Lindsey Graham — Republican representative for South Carolina, where Boeing 787s are assembled — led a delegation to Taiwan. When meeting Tsai, he seemingly became a spokesperson for Boeing and said bluntly that he hoped Taiwan would buy Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner jets.

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A Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner taxis past the Final Assembly Building at Boeing South Carolina in North Charleston, South Carolina, United States, 31 March 2017. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

A few months later, on 30 August, Taiwan’s China Airlines announced a 140 billion NTD (US$4.6 billion) deal to buy 16 Boeing 787-9 passenger aircraft, with options for eight more. Taiwan’s blue camp criticised the deal and questioned the safety standards of the Boeing 787 series.

Previously in June, Graham and US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez, who was also part of Graham’s delegation to Taiwan in April, jointly introduced the groundbreaking Taiwan Policy Act of 2022.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was initially scheduled to consider the bill on 3 August, but delayed it due to Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. It was later confirmed on 28 August that the bill will be considered on 14 September. Two days later, China Airlines announced its plan to purchase Boeing 787 planes.

The Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 proposed by Menendez and Graham is described as being tantamount to setting off an “atomic bomb” in China-US relations. It would elevate Taiwan-US relations to quasi-official relations, which would not only have a far greater impact than Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, but might even shake the foundations of China-US diplomatic relations. In a joint press release, the bill’s sponsors pointed out that the bill represents “the most comprehensive restructuring of US policy towards Taiwan since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979”.

Regardless, the fact that the bill was introduced bears testament to the effectiveness of Taiwan’s efforts in the US Congress and the influence of pro-Taiwan US representatives and senators.

US Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes his way to the Senate Chambers at the US Capitol on 3 August 2022 in Washington, DC, US. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP)
US Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes his way to the Senate Chambers at the US Capitol on 3 August 2022 in Washington, DC, US. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP)

The bill designates Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally” and would rename the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to the “Taiwan Representative Office”. It also specifies, “Not to be construed as entailing restoration of diplomatic relations with Taiwan or altering the US position on Taiwan’s international status, directs the Secretary of State to rescind administrative guidance that inhibits Taiwanese officials from displaying symbols of Taiwanese sovereignty, including the flag of the Republic of China.” The bill also pledges “almost US$4.5 billion in security assistance over the next four years” to bolster Taiwan’s defence capabilities.

It is still too early to tell if the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 will be passed in the US Senate and ultimately become law. Regardless, the fact that the bill was introduced bears testament to the effectiveness of Taiwan’s efforts in the US Congress and the influence of pro-Taiwan US representatives and senators. US representatives and senators could oppose or even overturn the considerations and decisions of the executive branch.

With the Biden administration’s low approval rating, Congress already disregards the executive branch’s considerations.

An independent Congress

Murphy sent a particularly strong message from the US Congress in her recent opening speech when she met Tsai, stating that her visit symbolises the Congress’s “rock-solid commitment” to Taiwan. She also emphasised that Congress is a “co-equal branch of the American government” and has “the power to craft legislation and policy that often remains in place across multiple presidential administrations”.

US Representative Stephanie Murphy attends a meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen at the presidential office in Taipei, Taiwan, 8 September 2022. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)
US Representative Stephanie Murphy attends a meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen at the presidential office in Taipei, Taiwan, 8 September 2022. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)

The US adopts a system of separated powers under which the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) are kept separate. With the Biden administration’s low approval rating, Congress already disregards the executive branch’s considerations.

Coupled with the anti-China bipartisan consensus, the president is also reluctant to stand in direct opposition to them — Pelosi’s Taiwan visit despite the Pentagon’s advice is a case in point. Chaos in the US’s political arena has added new variables and uncertainties to China-US relations, making it even tougher to build mutual trust. Following Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, US politicians can still continue with their "salami-slicing" tactics on Taiwan, until they cut their elbows.

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