Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: How a US bill risks new crisis over Taiwan

Scarcely a month after US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan sparked a major crisis, the American Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee has approved a new bill, called the Taiwan Policy Act 2022, which aims at a major shift in America’s relationship with the island democracy of 23 million people. The Mint breaks down this development and its consequences for US-China relations.

What is the background to this move?

Taiwan has been at the receiving end of unrelenting Chinese pressure since the end of 2021. In October 2021, Beijing’s fighters entered Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) and have ratcheted up the military pressure ever since. The US, which has functioned as Taiwan’s chief protector since 1949, has faced questions in recent years about the credibility of its security guarantee. In addition, US-China tensions have increased sharply in the recent past.

US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew to Taiwan in August in the teeth of Chinese opposition. After she left, Beijing conducted a series of military exercises that represented a major show of force around the island. As Chinese provocations have expanded in scope, scale and ambition, Washington has looked on with increasing disquiet.

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What does this new bill propose?

The bill is a mix of substance and symbolism. On the former, it authorizes a $4.5 billion assistance package for the Taiwanese military over the next four years. In order to prepare the island for Chinese military action, it also directs key officials in the US government to assess Taiwanese vulnerabilities and military needs. America’s top diplomatic and defense officials will be responsible for assessing risks to Taiwan and developing plans to defend the island while coordinating with their Taiwanese counterparts.

The bill also proposes major symbolic changes given that the US does not formally recognise the government in Taiwan. It would end long-standing restrictions on American government officials meeting the island’s officials, designate Taiwan a major non-NATO ally, and formally use the name “Taiwan" instead of “Taipei".

However, the bill does not change the fundamental fact that America does not recognise Taiwan’s independence.

How has China reacted?

Beijing’s reaction has been severe. A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry remarked that “if the bill continues to be deliberated, pushed forward or even becomes law, it will greatly shake the political foundation of China-US relations and cause extremely serious consequences to China-US relations, and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait," Foreign minister Wang Yi said.

Wang was more explicit and said that the new bill would “fundamentally challenge" US-China ties. He also added that should the question of Taiwan be mishandled, “it would most likely devastate bilateral ties".

Could this bill create a crisis over Taiwan?

Certain politicians and former diplomats seem to think so. Senator Mitt Romney, once the Republican nominee for President in 2012, argued that the bill’s objectives could be achieved by adopting a more low-profile approach. “We are doing something highly provocative and bellicose," Senator Romney was quoted as saying. It was an opinion shared by some other Senate colleagues.

Former top officials like ex-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage also expressed their concern. While symbolic measures had their place, Armitage argues, Washington and Taipei have years of work ahead as they attempt to reshape the military balance vis-a-vis China in their favour. Symbolism that stands as a direct charge to Beijing’s interests may spark another military crisis in the Taiwan Straits which both America and Taiwan may be ill-prepared for at this time.

Will the bill succeed?

While policies supporting Taiwan enjoy bipartisan support, it is not immediately clear whether the bill will eventually be passed. The White House has been conspicuously silent regarding the bill. While President Biden has repeatedly stated that America would step in to help Taiwan in case of a military attack by Taiwan, the bill represents a major shift in Washington’s policy towards Taipei. Presidential support notwithstanding, America is also gearing up for a midterm election which may result in Biden’s Democrats losing their majority in Congress. As such, action on the bill seems unlikely before November.

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