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US prepares new Taiwan legislation after infuriating China over Hong Kong

A participant holds a torch and wears headgear modelled after the Statue of Liberty as people assemble for a gathering of thanks at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong's Central district on November 28, 2019
A participant holds a torch and wears headgear modelled after the Statue of Liberty as people assemble for a gathering of thanks at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong's Central district on November 28, 2019 Anthony WALLACE / AFP

China has threatened retaliation against Washington after US President Donald Trump signed legislation supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters. But a similar bill for Taiwan is in the making as presidential elections approach.

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The new legislation backing Taiwan comes as the government in Taipei has lost several allies, with all but 15 countries jumping back in line with China.

The US Senate passed the bill in October. It is now awaiting approval from the House of Representatives, before the president resident signs it into law. 

The move would take US-China relations to a new low, after Trump last week signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 – overwhelmingly approved by Congress with a 417 votes to 1. 

The law supports “the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, including the 'ultimate aim' of the selection of the Chief Executive and all members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage” and threatens to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in the territory.

Severe interference

China furiously rejected the bill. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang declared in a press conference: “This is a severe interference in Hong Kong affairs, which are China's internal affairs. It is also in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations.”

But the bill does refer to existing international treaties, and builds on the 1984 Joint Declaration between the PRC and the UK, signed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Chinese counterpart Zhao Ziyang, that covers the Hong Kong handover and guarantees the continuation of its political and economic system after the 1997 handover from the UK to China.

It also cites the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, which China signed on 5 October 1998 – but never ratified – and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But for China, the US action only comes down to “ulterior motives” aimed at “undermining” the rule of the Communist Party in mainland China.

Taiwan Relations Act

Washington’s latest act only adds to Chinese suspicion that US policy is aimed at breaking up the country.

On 1 January 1979, on the same day the Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, it signed the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that Washington considers “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means...a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States”, and can “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”.

Since 1979, Washington has sold weapons worth some $200 million on a yearly basis, with monster orders, including 66 F-16 jetfighters, approved as part of an $8 billion deal in August this year.

The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019, aimed at re-enforcing the Taiwan Relations Act, was approved by the Senate unanimously on 29 October and is expected to be approved by the House of Representatives.

It says: “The government of the People’s Republic of China has intensified its efforts to pressure Taiwan", and calls for "strengthening" Taiwan’s unofficial relations with the US.

Once signed into law, it risks fuelling Beijing's anger even further.

Fuelling Beijing's anger

On 11 January 2020, Taiwan is to stage presidential elections. The incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic People’s Party (DPP) is running against Nationalist (Kuomintang KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu who favors the status quo on non-confrontation with Beijing.

The Hong Kong protests and the governments’ reaction directly influence Taiwan public opinion and may tip the balance in the upcoming elections.

Before the demonstrations, public opinion in Taiwan was comfortably in favour of the more pro-Beijing KMT, reaching as high as 60 percent, while the pro-independence DPP lagged far behind between 25-39 percent. 

As the unrest in Hong Kong grew, public opinion in Taiwan shifted considerably, with some opinion polls showing 57 percent in favour of the DPP.

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