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taiwan, lobbying, china, foreign influence

A Persistent Taiwan Lobby Yields Dividends

Even allies seek to influence policy in Washington. 

Words: Holly Zhang
Pictures: Mark Ivan

On April 13, former Senator Chris Dodd and two former senior State Department officials visited Taiwan as part of an unofficial delegation. The State Department noted that this trip “[sent] an important signal about the US commitment to Taiwan and its democracy.” The visit came in the wake of the White House affirming the United States’ commitments to Taiwan and clarifying that the United States will “continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability,” including billions of dollars in arms sales.

These developments arrive against a changing geopolitical backdrop. Recent escalations in US-China tensions have brought the island of Taiwan to the forefront of competition between the world’s two largest powers. But Taiwan is not just standing on the sidelines waiting for these superpowers to decide its fate. Instead, the island is making its voice heard through one of Washington’s most well-established vocations: lobbying. In fact, soon after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the Taiwan representative to the United States declared their top priority to be “establish[ing] a good working relationship with the new US government.”

While the Biden administration has many strategic reasons to support Taiwan, it is no coincidence that Taiwan’s lobby, which spends millions every year on lobbying and public relations firms in the United States, has long been pushing for many of the changes we are now seeing. A recently released Taiwan Lobby report from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, which I co-authored, shows how many of these US foreign policy initiatives may have begun as the Taiwan lobby’s talking points.

Taiwan is not just standing on the sidelines waiting for these superpowers to decide its fate. Instead, the island is making its voice heard through one of Washington’s most well-established vocations: lobbying.

Take for example, the issue of Taiwan’s World Health Organization (WHO) Observer status. Recently, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s chairman Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill to direct the Secretary of State to work on the issue of Taiwan’s WHO observer status. This legislation unsurprisingly aligns with Taiwan’s desire to be reinstated as a WHO observer – a critical objective indicated in its filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Taiwan’s representative to the United States even highlights international participation as one of Taiwan’s priorities with the Biden administration, alongside a focus on defense and security and economic relationships.

The Gephardt Group, founded by former Congressman Dick Gephardt, works on behalf of the de facto embassy of Taiwan, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO), and made several contacts regarding “Senate consideration of S. 249 Taiwan WHO observer status” and the “H. Res 273 related to Taiwan Relations Act,” in 2019. These emails and meetings were directed to Congressional staff and refer to the Senate and House bills that sought to reinstate Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Organization for Taiwan, which Taiwan lost in 2016.

Another example is the issue of US-Taiwan defense ties. In 2020 alone, the Trump administration approved $5.9 billion worth of arms sales to Taiwan. Behind this strengthening of defense ties — and away from the limelight — were scores of meetings between Taiwan’s lobbyists and policymakers, like the one the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan conducted the year before with the Department of Defense’s Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Security Cooperation and Senior Taiwan Advisor “to discuss Taiwan’s defense needs.” Contacts where firms discussed the Taiwan Relations Act with Congress members’ staff and think tank experts are also part of its campaign for a deeper defense relationship. Notably, the bulk of Taiwan’s lobbying was directed at Congress, with only dozens of contacts to think tanks and none to the media. As FARA filings show, meetings like this one with defense officials are happening behind the scenes while the US government continues to publicly express its commitment to Taiwan and sells billions in arms to the island.

Though it is unclear how much of a role Taiwan’s lobbying is playing, these entries — among others — offer an often unseen glimpse into the persistent ways in which a foreign government’s lobbying may influence US policymakers, even years down the line.

While the size of Taiwan’s lobbying operations in Washington is dwarfed, both in terms of money spent and political contacts made, by those of other nations, like South Korea and Qatar, its influence and impact on US foreign policy is just as significant. Taiwan’s lobbying operations present a targeted approach focused on diplomatic and security ties. This stands in contrast to its East Asian peers, whose massive lobbying operations concern more diverse issues ranging from the trade of sake to US military basing. Despite having fewer resources, Taiwan’s targeted approach wins its lobbying campaign more mileage on priority issues. As a result, issues that Taiwan has lobbied for, like WHO observer status and defense ties continue to be addressed by US policy.

These filings illustrate the lobbying strategy for deeper US-Taiwan relations that continues to reap rewards as the United States repeatedly reinforces its support for the island’s legitimacy and security. As a democratic government that shares many of the same values the United States touts, Taiwan may not be an alarming or obvious source of foreign influence. Yet, in an era of “strategic competition” with China that is the crux of the Biden administration’s foreign policy strategy, it is important to be diligent in tracking the ways in which even allies seek to further their own interests in Washington.

Holly Zhang is a researcher at the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.

Holly Zhang

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