By Siddharth Anil Nair*
In July 2022, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a Congressional delegation (CODEL) of House Democrats to the Western Pacific. The official itinerary included Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. On 2 August, the CODEL made a three-day visit to Taiwan. Geopolitical tensions across the strait and the Pacific have soared since.
The Speaker-led visit was the first of its kind in 25 years, corroborating Washington’s changed position on cross-strait politics. This article evaluates two indicators—rhetoric and legislation—to assert that new clarity emerging from Washington shows that its political elite are willing and able to make a much firmer commitment to ‘standing with Taiwan.’
Over the past two administrations, American policymakers have more frequently engaged with a language of ‘alternatives’ when it comes to China. They have also openly questioned the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) credibility and legitimacy, given its repression of the Uighur and Tibetan communities, crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, and contentious territorial claims across Asia. The most controversial example of such language is former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call to the Chinese people to “change the CCP’s behaviour,” which many interpreted as a call for regime change.
At the same time, these policymakers have publicly expressed their support for the people of Taiwan. To them, Taiwan’s progressive political landscape offers a unique example of “what a mature, Chinese-speaking democracy looks like.” Other than its politics, Taiwan’s performanceduring the coronavirus pandemic and its effective governance further highlights why “Taiwan is a society worthy of emulation and envy.” US political language reflects this conviction and there is a growing bipartisan recognition that “the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done.”
This more explicit US political rhetoric is also being propelled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Take, for example, The Washington Post op-ed Speaker Pelosi published the day she arrived in Taiwan. She drew parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan, using terms such as “standing up to autocrats.” She referenced her trip to the other “besieged nation,” Ukraine, in April, which she undertook to reaffirm their democracy and freedom. This trip to Taiwan was no different. Even at the highest level, one can see the American position change. President Biden has, on multiple occasions this year, clarified that the US would defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion. As much as Taipei would like to distinguish its situation from Kyiv’s, the invasion of Ukraine sets a dangerous precedent for cross-strait conflict.
There is also a concomitant change in legislation in the US, supported by growing political will as seen in the number of CODELs to Taiwan. CODELs are made up of Congresspersons with commitments in the US’ legislative economic, intelligence, military, and foreign policy committees. They are those with actual hands on Washington’s decision and policymaking steering wheels. Pelosi made it a point to highlight this in a speech in Taipei: she said, “our delegation has what we call ‘heft’.” The 2 August CODEL comprised members with commitments to the House Ways and Means, Armed Forces, Intelligence, Cyber, and International Development committees, just to name a few. Pelosi also told Vice President Tsai Chi-chang,“…so many of the legislation and other initiatives that you mentioned were possible because of my Members of this delegation.”
On 15 August, just two weeks after Pelosi’s visit, a bipartisan CODEL arrived in Taipei, unannounced. Senator Markey, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity, who led this CODEL, had introduced the Taiwan ASSURE Act in the Senate in 2021. This was an important visit also because the US passed the CHIPS Act 2022 the previous month—Markey didn’t just meet with key government officials, but also representatives from the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). Three days after this visit, the US announced that formal bilateral trade negotiations with Taiwan would commence along the lines of the 21st Century Trade Initiative revealed in June this year.
The most significant visit this year, however, was in April. A few months later, Senator Lindsay Graham and Senator Robert Menendez, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the Taiwan Policy Act 2022 for review. This piece of legislation is meant to result in a wholesale US policy shift, expanding not just the scope and depth of US-Taiwan political, economic, and security cooperation—as defined in the Taiwan Relations Act 1979—but emphasising Taipei’s pivotal geostrategic role in the Indo-Pacific.
Notably, some in the US strategic community, have called Washington’s position on Taiwan incoherent, especially in the aftermath of Pelosi’s visit. While the US officially maintains a ‘strategically ambiguous’ policy on Taipei, two indicators, which are separate from its military posture, suggest otherwise.
The fine print of Taiwan Relations Act 1979 already directly linked the region’s and the US’ own security to the peaceful determination of Taiwan’s future. With a peaceful future looking increasingly uncertain, and with China more obviously ready to use force, a new clarity has emerged in Washington. This clarity is reflected in more explicit US political rhetoric and is supported by legislation—demonstrating will—to peacefully resolve the Taiwan question, showing that the US “stands with Taiwan.”
Siddharth Anil Nair is Researcher with IPCS’ South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP).