The First year: Congressional impact on US-Taiwan Relations in the Trump Administration

December 10, 2017
Global Taiwan Brief



By John J. Tkacik

December 10, 2017

It was 68 years ago this week that Congressional influence on America’s Taiwan policy was born amid the rubble of the Truman Administration’s China policy.   The moment arrived as Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s silver four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymasterroared off the runway from Chengdu on December 10, 1949, bundling him and his son off to permanent exile in Taipei.  At once, the United States Congress became the single most important factor in executive branch considerations of Taiwan policy; sometimes not in a good way, but for the most part constructive and mercifully nonpartisan.


This first year of the Trump Administration has seen democratic Taiwan sustaining its supremely positive image on Capitol Hill.  By contrast, Congress views “the peaceful rise” of Taiwan’s nemesis, China, as it might welcome Godzilla’s “peaceful rise” from the Pacific Ocean.  


Indeed, Congress sees Taiwan as America’s most successful partner democracy in Asia.  Less publicized is Capitol Hill’s view of Taiwan as an under-appreciated “security cooperation partner” – or as one pentagon official pronounced last year, “The United States’ largestsecurity cooperation partner in Asia.”[1]   So large, in fact, that after his election the new president-elect enthusiastically embraced Taiwan.


On December 2, 2016, Donald Trump engaged in a cordial and unprecedented phone call with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen.  Colorful explosions of talking heads among the Beltway commentariat ensued.   Mr. Trump then tweeted his eminently reasonable opinion: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”[2]  Of course, over the seven years preceding the Trump-Tsai phone call, the executive branch had “notified Congress of more than $14 billion in arms sales.”  Unlike most American pundits, the President-elect had an unnuanced, down-to-earth appreciation of what a fine “security cooperation partner” Taiwan was.


Congress’s role commenced shortly thereafter.  In mid-January, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson found multiple briefing pages of nice things to say about Taiwan in his confirmation colloquies with the Senate Foreign Relations committee.  And, while Mr. Tillerson wasn’t wholly attentive to the arcana of Taiwan relations (President Reagan’s “Six Assurances” unaccountably  morphed into the “Six Issues Accord”), he was tough on China and its aggressiveness in the South China Sea – so tough that Beijing’s newspapers asked “Is Tillerson’s bluster just a bluff for Senate?”[3]


Throughout 2017, Capitol Hill sensed a new White House friendliness toward Taiwan, but President Trump’s deal-making, “transactional” approaches to Beijing on trade, maritime freedoms and North Korea were unsettling.  147 members of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus wrote respectfully to the President on April 5, 2017, prior to the Trump-Xi Jinping summit at Mar-a-Lago to “ensure that the United States continues to adhere to the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances.”[4] On June 15, the Republican-chaired Asia subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings because of worries that the “administration has inadvertently added to the confusion with mixed messages in the complex area of Taiwan policy.”[5]


Prominent members of both chambers introduced legislation encouraging broader U.S. official interactions with Taiwan’s government, things variously called the “Taiwan Travel Act”[6]and the “Taiwan Security Act.”[7]  Generally, these high-minded bills were feints to slip more subtle and substantive improvements on US-Taiwan military exchanges and technical “debundling” of Taiwan defense sales notifications (Sections 1259 and 1270) into a [semi veto-proof] National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 Conference Report.[8]  Which is a jargon-laden way of saying,  “Congress insists that Taiwan be managed as a normal U.S. security cooperation partner in Asia.”


In past Administrations, the Congress tried to nudge the White House toward a more accommodating posture on the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship, only to be met with stouthearted resistance at the National Security Council and the State Department.  By contrast, Trump Administration nominees to key Asia positions have long paper-trails of scholarly analyses and op-eds which reflect an eagerness to deepen U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation.  


One such nominee, Randall Schriver, has written extensively on Taiwan security issues for his “Project 2049” Think Tank in Arlington, Virginia.  On June 23, 2017, eight senators, in an impressive bipartisan national security leadership coalition of four Republicans and four Democrats, adopted Mr. Schriver’s recommendations and urged President Trump, in writing, to:



release pending Taiwan arms sales programs currently awaiting Congressional notification; 


end the practice of “bundling” Taiwan arms sales, and instead establish a regular and routine process whereby notifications would be sent to Congress when ready; 


and quickly and robustly address Taiwan’s significant and legitimate future requirements for new defense capabilities.[9]


These senators cautioned the President against allowing concerns about China to take precedence over support for Taiwan.  They also warned “China has intensified its economic coercion and military intimidation tactics, thereby stoking cross-Strait tensions and threatening peace and security in the Taiwan Strait. Given these circumstances, our support for Taiwan is more important than ever.”


On June 30, after five months of weighing China’s meager contributions to the denuclearization of North Korea, the Trump Administration notified Congress of another $1.3 billion in sales to Taiwan.[10]  


The Senators’ June 2017 letter to President Trump was only the most visible evidence of the Legislative Branch’s influence on U.S.-Taiwan relations in the first year of the Trump Presidency.  


By August, Congress’s unabashed promotion of close ties with Taiwan became too much for Beijing. Chinese Ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, sent formal letters to top House and Senate leaders averring that the Taiwan Travel Act, the Taiwan Security Act and Taiwan provisions in the Defense budget were “provocations against China’s sovereignty, national unity and security interests” and “crossed the ‘red line’ on the stability of the China-U.S. relationship.”[11]  It is unclear just what the Chinese ambassador was complaining about. Apparently, most assumed China objected to the bills in principle, but one commentator seemed to think it was because a senate amendment “mandated” U.S. Navy port calls in Taiwan.[12]  Perhaps it was the ambassador’s clever stratagem to take credit for something that was going to happen anyway; all along, the “mandate” language was drafted to be softened in conference, and Ambassador Cui can claim credit that his tough talk cowed the Congress.


Capitol Hill’s most direct influence on foreign and defense policy is in the Senate and its advice and consent role, so it is instructive that the President and his team seem to welcome congressional input, on Taiwan, at least.  The Defense Department seems open as well, given the subcabinet nominations of several appointees with solid Congressional experience. Whether the Department of State is as welcoming is less evident given the vacuum of nominees for State Asia-policy posts.


Assistant Secretary of Defense-designate Randall Schriver must carefully have studied the June 23rdletter from the eight key senators (if he did not have a hand in writing it himself).  He told his senate confirmation hearing in November that “I believe the U.S. Government should improve the predictability of arms sales to Taiwan by encouraging Taiwan to submit formal requests for defense articles and services, then responding to those formal requests in a timely fashion.”  And when asked about the controversial matter of resuming U.S. Navy “port calls” to Taiwan (after 40 years), he responded:


I have been on the record in published articles supporting both U.S. Navy ship visits to Taiwan, as well as Taiwan navy ship visits to the United States.  Such port calls would be entirely consistent with ourOne China Policy[13]as we define it.  … Since we reserve for ourselves the right to define ourown One China Policy, commencing U.S. ship visits to Taiwan and vice versa can be included. The benefits of U.S. port calls to Taiwan would fall into the traditional justification for port calls to any other friendly country in the world […] ; and to support our political goals of supporting Taiwan and deterring China. [….][14]


“In foreign policy, Congress proposes and the President disposes.”  This is the core constitutional demarcation of prerogatives.  House and Senate committees can hear witnesses, give members of Congress podiums for pontification, and send any number of bills to the floor for votes, but they cannot constitutionally mandate any foreign policy upon an unwilling president, unless, of course, if it requires a lot of money.  And it is equally difficult, despite such efforts as the War Powers Act, to restrain a president from plowing into a policy that the Congress doesn’t want.  So it is significant that the President’s nominees on Taiwan policy issues are long-time Asia experts with track records of China-skepticism. 


On the whole, Congress over the past ten months has been remarkably supportive of Taiwan and of the Trump Administration’s new directions in its relations with Taiwan.  68 years ago, Congress slammed the Truman Administration by asking the electorate “Who Lost China?”  Republicans won 28 house seats in the 1950 elections and another 5 in the Senate, but the victories of dozens of conservative, pro-Chiang Kai-shek Democrats in other races ensured that President Truman’s Korean War foreign policy would be conservative, rather than progressive. Continuing rancor in the Congress against Truman’s perceived failures in the Korean War paved the 1952 Campaign Trail for an overwhelming Republican landslide.


 Thus far, 2017 has been a year of bipartisan Congressional and Executive support for Taiwan.  Despite Congress’s concerns about a “transactional” approach to Taiwan policy, 2018 may be a year that a “transactional” approach to Taiwan brings dramatic upgrades to the U.S. view of Taiwan vis-à-vis China.




[1][emphasis added]   Prepared Remarks of David Helvey, Senior Advisor, Performing the duties of the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, to the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council Defense Industry Conference, October 3, 2016 - Williamsburg, Virginia. 

[3] “Is Tillerson’s bluster just a bluff for Senate?” Global Times, January 13, 2017, at

[9]Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Cornyn (R-TX) Senate Majority Whip, James Inhofe (R-OK), Edward Markey (D-MA) ranking minority member of the SFRC subcommittee on East Asia, John McCain (R-AZ) Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) former SFRC Chair, Marco Rubio (R-FL) chair of the Senate committee on Commerce, and Ron Wyden (D-OR) ranking minority member of the Committee on Finance. See

[10]June 30, 2017, The Nelson Report:  Official "background brief", attributable to a "U.S. Government official":  This afternoon, the Department of State approved and delivered Congressional notifications for several sales to Taiwan cumulatively valued at approximately $1.4 billion. The notifications from DSCA are attached.


Systems include:

·        Early Warning Radar Surveillance Technical Support ($400 million)

·        AGM-154C Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) ($185.5 million)

·        AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation (HARM) Missiles ($147.5 million)

·        MK 48 6AT Heavy Weight Torpedoes ($250 million)

·        MK 46 to MK-54 Torpedo Upgrade ($175 million)

·        SM-2 Missile Components ($125 million)

·        AN/SLQ-32A Electronic Warfare (EW) Shipboard Suite Upgrade ($80 million) 


[11]Josh Rogin, “China threatens U.S. Congress for crossing its ‘red line’ on Taiwan,” The Washington Post, posted October 12, 2017, at

[12]Julian G. Ku, “American Just Quietly Backed-Down Against China Again,” Foreign Policy, posted November 29, 2017, at, citing wording at

[13](emphasis added). The formula “our One China” is a term of art devised by the Department of State in 2004.  On April 21, 2004, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, in Congressional Testimony, explained “The definition of One China is something that we could go on for much too long for this event.  In my testimony, I made the point "our One China,"and I didn't really define it, and I'm not sure I very easily could define it.   I can tell you what it is not.  It is not the One-China policy or the One-China principle that Beijing suggests …”  See “The Taiwan Relations Act: The Next Twenty-Five Years,” testimony before the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives, April 21, 2004, p. 32, at

[14]  See “Advance Policy Questions for Randall Schriver, Nominee for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs” November 16, 2017, at


For more information

For more information or to schedule a speaking engagement, please use our Contact form.

Mailing Address:
1307 Westgrove Blvd.
Alexandria, Virginia 22307

Phone Number: