AmCham Taiwan at 70: Reaching the U.S. Government through the Doorknock

Paul Cassingham shakes hands with then Premier Lin Chuan before a briefing to the Premier on the latest AmCham Doorknock.

“Your first and second goals conflict with each other. Which one do you really want?”

His words struck me for three reasons. First, they were abrupt. They hadn’t even been preceded by “hello.” Second, they were addressed to an AmCham chairperson by a senior U.S. senator who had told his staff he wanted to see us. The senator was very busy, between floor votes and discussions with his colleagues, so instead of suggesting a meeting in his office he had asked that we be brought to him, just outside the door to the Senate chamber. Third, and most significantly, his words showed that he had read and thought about the briefing paper we had sent him when requesting an appointment.

The experience drove home to me the value of AmCham’s communications with the U.S. government.

Since 1994, over 150 members and staff have participated in AmCham’s annual “Doorknocks.” Most Doorknocks have followed the same basic routine.  Participants join 5-6 meetings per day for 4-5 days with various executive branch officials, House and Senate staff members and think tank scholars. Some meetings last as long as an hour. Others get shortened without warning to just a few minutes. A small number occur in palatial surroundings (once even in the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across from the White House). Many more happen in lobbies or even hallways.

AmCham members are intimately familiar with the problems their individual companies face in Taiwan. On Doorknock, participants need to step back and consider, and then articulate, the bigger picture – first that of their industry as a whole, then the still broader one faced by the U.S. business community in Taiwan in general, and finally the even bigger picture of Taiwan, its relationships with the U.S. and PRC, and its role in the Asia-Pacific region. The goal is always to inform the D.C. policymaker about life on the ground in Taiwan, and how he or she can help make it even better.  The challenge has always been to tailor the message to fit the audience, whether a senior official with years of Asia experience or a junior staffer who has never visited this continent. Participants often surprise themselves by how well they rise to that challenge. 

To my knowledge, no one who has joined a Doorknock has ever regretted it. Most participants learned more about U.S. politics and policymaking in one week in Washington than they otherwise could learn without taking a job there. On the other hand, many have asked a troubling question I’ve sometimes found difficult to answer: “Were we effective?”

I can point to at least two occasions when I am confident Doorknock made a difference.

First, during the late 1990s, the Taiwan and U.S. governments conducted intense negotiations in the run-up to Taiwan joining the WTO. USTR officials visited Taiwan every few months for continuing discussions on specific industries, including pharmaceuticals, telecom, liquor, and even legal services. Two or three times during that period, several industry experts joined Doorknock, meeting with USTR negotiators to explain details about investment and trade obstacles in their industries. Those discussions enabled later government negotiations to be more precise and efficient, and ultimately helped make Taiwan’s WTO commitments more valuable for the Taiwan economy.

Second, in the year 2000 an issue arose as to whether the U.S. should grant permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) to the PRC. The question was important to AmCham because PNTR was a step toward the PRC joining the WTO, and it was clear that Taiwan would be unable to join the WTO until China did. PNTR was controversial in the House of Representatives, where certain members believed that opposition to PNTR demonstrated support for Taiwan. AmCham met with then-President-elect Chen Shui-bian and obtained his agreement to sign a letter supporting PNTR. AmCham then held its only “single-issue” Doorknock, distributing copies of the letter to members of Congress and staffers. Opposition softened, and the House approved PNTR the following week by a vote of 237 to 197. But these breakthroughs are exceptions. Instead, most Doorknocks involve “fighting the good fight” of reminding Washington policymakers of Taiwan’s importance as one of the top 10 trading partners of the U.S., with American investment of more than US$17 billion. The message underscored by the Doorknock team is that U.S. policy toward Taiwan should be viewed on its own merits, not as an appendage to the U.S. relationship with the PRC. Those reminders in Washington continue to be needed.