Pomp or Policy? How Foreign Delegations Can Actually Help Taiwan
The next few months are a unique window of opportunity for delegations to deepen engagement without fear of strong Chinese retaliation.
Following the widely controversial delegation by U.S. speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in July 2022, a number of countries including the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States have announced plans to send further delegations to the island. China has repeatedly condemned official delegations to Taiwan, as Beijing views these delegations as legitimizing Taiwan’s authority, encouraging separatist forces, and interfering with China’s sovereignty. However, the nature of these delegations has been the subject of much scrutiny in recent weeks.
China and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s continuing risk-averse behavior is something that Taiwan and Western allies must not take for granted. China faces a myriad of domestic challenges that Xi is adamant about containing before the Communist Party’s Twentieth Communist Party Congress looms in October, which could see Xi seek out an unprecedented third term. These problems range from public protest in the form of boycotting mortgage payments that continue to destabilize the real estate market to growing public dissatisfaction with Xi’s strict zero-Covid lockdown policies. These obstacles have also contributed to the Chinese government’s notable inability to achieve its economic goals; the Chinese economy only grew 0.4 percent in the second quarter of this year.
China’s reaction before and after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, as well as to the most recent US congressional delegation, reveal the trepidatious approach that Xi is taking to foreign delegations engaging Taiwan. While China condemned Pelosi’s visit and promised the use of force to deter the visit, its apprehension in following through and the subsequent military exercises to punish Taiwan show Xi’s unwillingness to address perceived provocations when push comes to shove. This is further articulated by China’s less-provocative response to the congressional delegation visit led by Senator Ed Markey, which came not two weeks after Pelosi left Taiwan. China may have used the Pelosi visit to set a new baseline for its military exercises around Taiwan, and the exercises announced after Markey’s delegation do not surpass this new standard, yet it is not likely to engage militarily with Taiwan at the moment.
Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has successfully convinced Western media that an invasion across the Taiwan Strait is imminent, this is not reflective of the actions China is actually willing to take right now. However, as the Twentieth Party Congress draws closer, the CCP’s leaders will feel increasingly less risk averse, and the risk of conflict will grow. However, this presents an opportunity for foreign countries to increase their engagement with Taiwan while facing potentially less harsh consequences from China.
If China has intensified its messaging around its claim to Taiwan, why would countries continue to send delegations to Taiwan? With China’s historic economic rise in the last decade, the United States under the Biden administration has adopted a policy of “strategic competition” towards China, and many countries view Beijing as the principal challenger to the current global order. NATO has declared China a significant security threat, and a Pew Research study conducted earlier this year across nineteen countries revealed that negative perceptions of China remain high, mainly due to its human rights abuses and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. With this rise of negative sentiments globally, many countries have become wary of Chinese intentions. This has allowed politicians to utilize anti-Chinese sentiments as a way to garner support domestically and distract away from domestic issues.
Another reason countries engage Taiwan, however, is to increase economic partnership. As the China-Taiwan conflict has gained greater global significance, Taiwan has also made great strides in increasing its cooperation with other countries. This is clearly evidenced by the recent talks of a trade agreement with the United States and the warming of Taiwan’s relations with many European Union member states. Japan has also called for greater economic cooperation with Taiwan in the field of semiconductors as well. A prime example of delegations being used to increase cooperation is the June 2022 Lithuanian delegation led by Vice Minister of the Economy and Innovation Jovita Neliupšiene, where lawmakers visited the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) and discussed cooperation with Taiwan in semiconductor fields such as integrated circuit design, packaging, testing, and manufacturing.
While countries have a handful of motivations for sending delegations to Taiwan, it is less clear whether these delegations are effective at garnering support for Taiwan or if they serve as a performative measure to appear supportive without substantive follow-up. A performative visit seeks to acknowledge Taiwan’s existence without pursuing any legislative effort back home to disrupt the status quo and risk angering China. This has been a trend in U.S. delegations following then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s visit in 1997 and did little to change Taiwan’s image in the world. With the increase of U.S. delegations to Taiwan in recent years, even in the case of a few outliers, many of these delegations have followed the introduction of laws in Congress towards Taiwan, showing that these delegations are merely for show and do not explicitly increase support for Taiwan.
However, as global collaboration with Taiwan has increased in response to China’s growing authoritarianism in the last decade, the lag time between delegations and actionable policies has begun to decrease, especially with European delegations. The EU Parliament’s first delegation to Taiwan in November 2021 followed the passage of a resolution on the state of EU cyber defense capabilities the week prior, which explicitly mentioned Taiwan as “one of the like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific” to be closely coordinated with. This delegation of EU lawmakers was specifically focused on carrying out the goals of the resolution by cooperating with Taiwan to learn more about enduring Chinese disinformation attacks and sharing experiences with Russian disinformation campaigns. Recent Japanese delegations to Taiwan have also discussed greater economic cooperation and Indo-Pacific security, although Japan has yet to adopt a codified law on unofficial relations with or security assistance to Taiwan, such as the United States’ Taiwan Relations Act.
The window for delegations to visit Taiwan without causing severe repercussions to Taiwan’s national safety is closing quickly, as China is unlikely to take military actions until Xi has secured his unprecedented third term during the forthcoming national congress in October. Countries that are able to withstand potential Chinese retaliation should take advantage of this window and increase their bilateral and multilateral delegations to Taiwan. If the global community is intent on increasing support for Taiwan, these delegations should have an explicit purpose and actionable takeaways. Delegates should visit Taiwan with the intent of understanding its current situation in order to enact policies in their home countries upon their return. Whereas U.S. politicians’ visits to Taiwan, including the Pelosi visit, have been largely ceremonial, an exception to this rule and an example of an actionable delegation can be seen in the April 2022 delegation led by Senator Bob Menendez and Senator Lindsey Graham. After visiting Taiwan, the two co-sponsored the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, a bipartisan bill that is seen as one of the largest restructurings of U.S.-Taiwan relations since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Former U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to Taiwan in September may also prove to be a litmus test of the U.S. commitment to more direct engagement with the island’s government.
One drawback is that delegations do have the effect of antagonizing China and increasing pressure on Taiwan, both in terms of economy and military exercises. However, collectively increasing the number of actionable delegations and cooperation with Taiwan during this timeframe helps stabilize Taiwan’s position within the global economy and potentially provides long-term deterrence to future Chinese aggression. The more global economies are intertwined with Taiwan and the more defense treaties Taiwan is able to secure with its allies, the less likely China is to take military action against it, especially with the myriad of domestic issues Beijing is currently facing. However, these delegations must capitalize on this crucial period before October in an actionable and coordinated manner in order to strengthen Taiwan’s security and improve its position within the global order.
Joe Baldock is a Research Assistant at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and a Master’s candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His current research is focused on international colonial politics, U.S.-Chinese competition, and Taiwanese political economy. He can be found on LinkedIn.
Jacob Davis is a Research Assistant at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and a Master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He studies US-China-Taiwan relations, Chinese ethnopolitics, and Indo-Pacific regional security. He can be found on LinkedIn.