Thirty-eight years ago, American diplomat James Lilley undertook a sensitive mission in Taipei on behalf of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. On July 14, 1982, the head of the de-facto American embassy conveyed to Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-Kuo what became known as the “six assurances” that help guide U.S.-Taiwan relations on issues of sovereignty and defense. The assurances, and Lilley's visit to the Taiwanese president's home to deliver them, signaled Washington's commitment to Taiwan’s security.
Reagan’s message for Taiwan as he negotiated with China was clear: America would not abandon Taiwan even as Washington pursued diplomatic relations with Beijing. The gesture also underscored that the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, a feat of Congressional leadership on foreign affairs, would remain the cornerstone for robust cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan.
The United States is now navigating a new strategic shift to confront the Chinese Communist Party’s growing threat to America’s vital interests, which include the geopolitical makeup of the Indo-Pacific region. Changes are in order, but so too is a measure of continuity in the ongoing project to deepen the bonds between the United States and Taiwan.
Specifically, the U.S. Congress should work with the Trump administration in the coming weeks and months to solidify bilateral ties with Taiwan, strengthen Taiwan’s defense posture, and shore up Taipei’s role in shaping an international system conducive to shared American and Taiwanese values and interests.
Taiwan today is a democratic success story. It is a valuable American partner, as evidenced in trade and investment ties. Taiwan’s skillful response to a pandemic that originated in neighboring China, which included donating masks to the United States, has only solidified its position as a model. Taiwan’s governance, prosperity, and commitment to being a responsible steward of the global order all set it apart as a model.
Still, a shadow looms over the island. China’s unification ambitions, growing aggression in the region, and military provocations have increased pressure. Taiwanese leaders have proven resilient amid this coercive campaign. Yet the CCP’s swift assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy raises questions about the risks of further escalation targeting Taiwan.
It is a critical moment for Congress to stand with Taiwan. Congressional leaders should work together with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to organize a bipartisan delegation to meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei. The delegation, consisting of senior civilian and military officials, could extend an invitation for President Tsai to address a joint session of Congress, a step that has already built up momentum in Congress and advances the vision of the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act.
Congress should pass the bipartisan, bicameral Taiwan Assurance Act. The legislation would encourage the State Department to approach Taipei “much as it would any other diplomatic partner.” It would also direct the Defense Department to find ways to cooperate with Taiwanese forces in bilateral and multilateral military training exercises.
Congress should continue to advocate that Washington promote Taiwan’s role in international organizations, as envisioned in the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, co-authored by Senators Cory Gardner and Chris Coons and led in the House by Representatives Vicente Gonzalez and John Curtis.
Congress should also help elevate Taiwan’s role within America’s partner and alliance network, for example by bringing Taiwan into successful U.S. ventures with key allies and partners beyond the Indo-Pacific region. An existing U.S.-Israel initiative focused on industrial R&D and technology could be a good prototype tailored for Taiwan’s strengths, especially given promising cooperation between Israel and Taiwan.
Congress can also facilitate closer economic and military cooperation with Taiwan. It should reiterate previous calls to start bilateral trade negotiations toward a free trade agreement. On defense issues, the focus should be on action to “redress the worsening military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait…in order to make an invasion of Taiwan too costly to even consider” for the CCP, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Bradley Bowman has assessed.
Support for arms sales in line with Taipei’s defense strategy should remain a priority. As President Reagan rightly asserted in a 1982 memo, “[I]t is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided [to] Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the [People’s Republic of China].” Current legislative language by Senator Josh Hawley and Representative Mike Gallagher being considered as part of the defense authorization bill debate would also help ensure that the U.S. military is prepared to prevent China from executing a “fait accompli” strike to seize Taiwan.
Shortly after James Lilley delivered the six assurances to President Chiang in July 1982, President Reagan described the U.S. commitment to Taiwan as “a moral obligation that we’ll keep.” Nearly four decades later, America’s moral and security-based commitment to Taiwan remains an imperative, and the role of Congress is more important than ever.
Maseh Zarif is a director of congressional relations at FDD Action, a Washington, DC-based non-profit and non-partisan organization advocating for effective policies to promote U.S. national security and defend free nations. Follow him on Twitter @masehz. The views expressed are the author's own.