What you need to know
Despite hype over the potential for Washington to make a real statement about its support for Taiwan at the opening of the new AIT complex, the end result was familiarly low-key.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the official opening of the new compound housing the American institute in Taiwan (AIT), held to moderate fanfare on June 12, was just how unremarkable it was.
Despite talk that the event would be attended by National Security Advisor and noted China hawk John Bolton, those rumors proved to be unfounded, and in the end, the U.S. government sent a delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce.
True, Royce is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Taiwan since Washington de-recognized Taipei in 1979, and she is married to Republican Ed Royce, who is a noted pro-Taiwan advocate in the U.S. Congress. Nevertheless, the lineup felt almost purposefully low-key.
Like the Bolton rumors, there had also been speculation that serving U.S. Marines would be stationed at the new compound to provide security, as is the task of Marines at U.S. embassies (those without the de facto prefix) around the world.
Alas, that rumor too proved to be false, or else a last-minute reconsideration was made, likely to avoid angering China. Although in all likelihood, the guards at the new complex -- which despite officially being a private organization performs all the functions of an embassy -- will indeed be Marines, they will just not be wearing the distinctive uniform of that service branch, and will through some bureaucratic legerdemain be officially retired and/or seconded to this or that private security outfit for the duration of their posting in Taiwan. Again: not to anger China.
Adding to the unremarkable nature of the ribbon-cutting, the event had the misfortune -- or fortune, depending on one’s perspective -- of taking place on the very same day that U.S. President Donald Trump held his historic meeting with Marshal Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Thus, the American news media, already anemic on international reportage, made little room for the ribbon cutting in its Asia coverage that day. Those that did report on it were cursory, and chose to focus -- as they so often do -- on the China angle as a way to jazz it up. Case in point: The report covering the event that appears on CNN’s webpage makes sure to tack on “, angering China” to what is otherwise a perfectly serviceable headline.
In a similar vein, The Washington Post appends “, and China isn’t happy” to its own headline in an effort to beef up the tension in this otherwise pedestrian news item. As ever, it should be noted that these additions are very likely made by sub-editors in newsrooms and not by the journalists themselves.
Beijing’s renewed appetite for annexing Taiwan will not be resisted with whispers, or by timidly underplaying important events like the inauguration of a new embassy complex.
Indeed, even China’s all-too predictable response seemed unremarkable and lacking in conviction. Government spokesman Ma Xiaoguang was quoted by Communist Party mouthpiece Xinhua News as saying, "The United States should adhere to the one-China principle and the three joint communiqués between China and the United States so as not to undermine bilateral ties and peace and stability in the region." This lackluster statement sounds remarkably pro forma, as though Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office couldn’t summon the energy to do more than fill out the relevant “Renegade Province” template.
In many ways, the low-key nature of this event is representative of Taipei-Washington relations in general. In fact, there are robust exchanges and deep ties defining the relationship between the two countries: Taiwan is America’s 10th largest trading partner, with US$65.3 billion in total two way trade in goods in 2016; military officers from the two nations train closely together to impart proficiency on the millions of dollars worth of defensive weaponry that the U.S. sells to Taiwan each year; and it has long been known that the U.S. National Security Agency and ROC National Security Bureau have, for years, been jointly monitoring Chinese communications from an ostensibly secret site on Yangmingshan Mountain.
And in the latest sign of entente, the U.S. Senate on June 18 passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2019, which recommends that troops from Taiwan and the U.S. participate in each other's military exercises and calls for high-level exchanges between by Taiwanese and U.S. generals.
For appearance’s sake, however (and by appearance, of course, I mean how it appears to Beijing), these ties are under-represented, downplayed, and generally swept under the rug. When circumstances necessitate that they are reported, our (the Western) media obligingly offers primarily the PRC narrative, as with the aforementioned headlines by CNN and The Washington Post.
This has been the case for decades, and seemed to be part of an implicit quid pro quo with Beijing: we won’t trumpet the true depth of our ties with America, and you don’t push too fast on unification. Today, however, under Chairman Xi Jinping, that Faustian bargain is being called into question.
Having successfully used the salami-slicing strategy to incrementally wrest control over the South China Sea over the past half-decade, the People’s Republic has, in recent months, set its sights on annexing Taiwan using the same technique. Beijing’s unilateral opening of four aviation corridors over the Taiwan Strait; pressuring foreign hotels and airlines to list Taiwan as a province of China; the PLA stepping up air-and-sea maneuvers in and near the Taiwan Strait: all are evidence of increased pressure on Taiwan, though none on its own reaches the level of a casus belli.
If the deal is truly off, then it may be time to break out of this pattern of downplaying Taipei-Washington ties. Indeed, this may be the most opportune time in years: there is a sitting president in the White House who isn’t afraid to talk tough (and like it or not, the Chinese respect strength) and who clearly has a penchant for deviating from the kind of customary diplomatic practices that, let’s be honest, have only allowed Beijing to incrementally shift the status quo in its favor for the past two decades.
Moreover, he has surrounded himself with advisors, such as Bolton and trade advisor Peter Navarro, to name just two, who are not only extremely knowledgeable about the Taiwan Strait, but who don’t view China ties through rose-colored glasses.
Beijing’s renewed appetite for annexing Taiwan will not be resisted with whispers, or by timidly underplaying important events like the inauguration of a new embassy complex. Both Taipei and Washington would do well put bilateral ties front and center.
The signing og the Taiwan Travel Act this past March was a nice gesture, but the real test will be whether the governments of the ROC and the USA have the political will to use it. The way has been paved for high-level, high-profile visits by U.S. officials to Taiwan, and these should be conducted as soon, and as often, as possible -- no matter how much Beijing whines.
This would not only prove beneficial to Taiwan’s defense, raising the stakes of any unfriendly moves by China, but it would normalize for American news audiences the Taiwanese perspective on cross-Strait ties.
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Editor: David Green