IF THE partisanship of American politics unsettles you, take heart from a little piece of legislation that sailed through both houses of Congress with not a single vote opposed to it. And though the Taiwan Travel Act could have passed into law without a presidential signature, last month Donald Trump chose to put his cardiogrammatic scrawl to it. Given the chaos in Washington, the act reveals a remarkable consensus. It urges, though it does not mandate, high-level visits between America and Taiwan of the kind that successive administrations have discouraged, so as not to offend China.
That country’s “one-China principle” decrees that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese motherland. The Chinese government wants all other countries to act as if Taiwan belongs to it. America has never agreed to the formulation since breaking off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 in order to establish them with China. It has made plain that Taiwan is a friend, to which it has long offered military support. But, in deference to China, American policy has never been to call Taiwan a separate country and always to “acknowledge” that both China and Taiwan agree on the principle that there is only one China, even if the two sides disagree over what exactly that means.
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This is America’s “one-China policy”. The convenient untruth, whose side-effect has been to deepen Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, was formulated when dictatorships in both Beijing and Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, claimed to rule all of China. Taiwan has no such pretensions today. Many members of Congress have long wished to give the island more credit for its peaceful transformation into a flourishing democracy over the past three decades. The Taiwan Travel Act was born out of this. It even gets close to calling a spade a spade, and Taiwan a sovereign country: “Visits to a country by United States Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials are an indicator of the breadth and depth of ties between the United States and such country,” one clause reads. This week President Tsai Ing-wen welcomed the act’s congressional sponsors in Taipei.
More surprising is Mr Trump’s support. It is true that as president-elect in late 2016 he took a congratulatory telephone call from Ms Tsai. That set off palpitations among Washington’s China-watchers. Yet Mr Trump soon reaffirmed the one-China policy. He told a host on his favourite television channel that he would do nothing over Taiwan without first consulting the Chinese ruler, Xi Jinping. And the relationship he has subsequently developed with Mr Xi has been larded with admiration for the dictator’s power and style. Nothing Mr Trump has said or done suggests a remotely similar admiration for Taiwan.
Yet a shift of sorts is under way. In January one pro-Taiwan China hawk, Randall Schriver, was put in charge of Asia-Pacific policy at the Pentagon. A more prominent hawk, John Bolton, is about to become Mr Trump’s national security adviser. And in March Alex Wong, the official in charge of Indo-Pacific strategy at the State Department, was in Taipei to deliver a speech. Taiwan, he said, “can no longer be excluded unjustly from international fora. [It] has much to share with the world.” With Taiwan barred from everything from the International Civil Aviation Organisation to Interpol, Mr Wong has a point. He assured Ms Tsai that American support for Taiwan has never been stronger.
China is not amused, although its increased diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan since Ms Tsai’s election two years ago has surely helped galvanise the American stance. Dignitaries visiting Beijing have been told that the sort of exchanges the travel act encourages could cross a red line, and that it is therefore more dangerous than two other big challenges facing Mr Xi. The first is the delicate summitry around a nuclear North Korea. The second is the growing American assault on Chinese exports and China-first industrial policies—on April 3rd the Trump administration announced 25% tariffs on $50bn of Chinese goods, from locomotives to snowblowers (see article).
The number two at the Chinese embassy in Washington, Li Kexin, warned Mr Trump not to sign the travel act. Last year he tried bullying Congress into watering down the National Defence Authorisation Act, which empowers (but again does not require) American naval vessels to call at Taiwanese ports. “The day that a US navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force,” he thundered at a reception in December. Last month Mr Xi himself warned that any actions to “split China” would face “the punishment of history”. Such threats are having some effect in Taiwan. Even Ms Tsai’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party is split over how much support to give the travel act. Ms Tsai herself is instinctively cautious about upsetting China. Few Taiwanese want their country to be a pawn in a great-power game.
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A test comes in the summer, when America opens a gleaming building in Taipei to house its unofficial embassy, with rumours that a member of the cabinet may attend. Mr Bolton’s presence might genuinely alarm China. Alternatively, it might interpret the Trump administration’s steps over Taiwan as a mere prop to pressure on trade. Mr Xi’s top economics official, Liu He, is in intense negotiations over China’s gaping trade surplus with America. He is presumed to have Mr Xi’s authority to offer to cut the surplus by tens of billions of dollars to avert a fully fledged trade war.
But what if China sees America as continuing to change the status quo on Taiwan after that? A few years ago Mr Xi said that the Taiwan “problem” cannot be left to future generations. Now that he has seized all the levers of power, nationalists would judge him harshly if he did not use them to stop Taiwan slipping away. So the island is shooting up the security agenda again—a reminder of the flashpoint it does not want to be, but still is.