Donald Trump has signed into law an act obliging Washington to help bolster international support for Taiwan, putting the US on a collision course with China even as the two countries try to stabilise relations that have deteriorated over the coronavirus pandemic.
The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, a law passed with strong bipartisan support, requires the Trump administration to reward third countries that have strengthened or upgraded relations with Taiwan.
The law also says the US must “alter its economic, security and diplomatic engagement with nations that take serious or significant actions to undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan”, and calls on Washington to advocate for Taiwan’s participation in international organisations.
The move raises US support for international recognition of Taiwan to a level rarely seen since Washington cut diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979.
Analysts see the new law as an open rebuke of China’s intensifying efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to invade if Taipei formalises its de facto independence or resists unification indefinitely.
Mark Harrison, a Taiwan expert at the University of Tasmania, said while the act was not a change in US policy, it was “going a long way in the context of the parameters of US policy”.
More international support for Taiwan hits at an issue Beijing sees as one of its most sensitive national interests, just as it is already ensnared in a spiral of tit-for-tat confrontations with Washington. In recent weeks, US-China tension — already heightened by a trade and technology war — has included Beijing’s decision to expel US journalists and a propaganda battle over the origin of coronavirus.
Mr Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke for the first time since the start of the outbreak on Friday, after the US president had sparked controversy for referring to the pandemic as the “China virus”.
Since transferring diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the US has retained a carefully calibrated ambiguity on its relationship with Taiwan. This has meant catering to Beijing’s demand that the island not be recognised as a country while continuing to support its defences.
The two powers have also taken turns in demonstrating strength around Taiwan, with the Chinese military stepping up bomber and fighter manoeuvres at the edge of Taiwan’s airspace, and the US Navy sailing a destroyer up the Taiwan Strait this week.
The TAIPEI Act “is a response to the more hardline and quite belligerent stance from Beijing in the past four years”, Mr Harrison said.
Since Tsai Ing-wen, who refuses to describe Taiwan as part of China, was elected president in 2016, Beijing has cut communications with the Taiwanese government and stepped up military threats. It has also convinced seven of Taipei’s diplomatic allies to switch their support, cutting the number of countries that recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state to just 15.
Beijing has also tirelessly campaigned to deny Taiwan participation in international organisations — most recently during the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing objects to any direct contact between the World Health Organization and Taiwan and, as a result of its pressure, the WHO lists epidemic data reported by Taiwan like a region of China under the name “Taipei and environs”.