Taiwan’s status in the world community is experiencing something really different; it’s being treated like a normal country. And not just a “normal” country, more like a valuable, constructive, democratic and generous country. This is not simply an artifact of Taiwan’s successes in combatting the novel coronavirus. It is a new attitude, weighing Taiwan’s democracy against China’s lack of it.
Before I continue, I should apologize to the readers of the Taipei Times. I have not visited Taipei since the opening of the American Institute in Taiwan’s new chancery building in Neihu last year, so I was unprepared for the photograph in the Taipei Times last week (June 16) of AIT Director Brent Christensen welcoming a guest beneath the aquiline gaze of a colossal “Great Seal of the United States of America.” My first impression was that the photograph depicted the US Embassy in Tokyo. This “Great Seal” was much bigger than those gracing lesser embassies. Title 18 of the United States Code (sec. 713) reserves the “Great Seal” to the United States government, and in truth I had never before seen a “Great Seal” at the old American Institute in Taiwan.
I tried to Google more images of the AIT building, and found the US Department of State’s “US Embassy” website where AIT is newly listed at https://www.usembassy.gov/taiwan-2/ — an entry wholly appropriate to a large American government establishment overseas. It shows that Washington, increasingly, is forthright and public about its commitment to democratic Taiwan.
This commitment has become more vocal and explicit over the past year. In just the past month or so, senior American officials have gone out of their way to be supportive of US-Taiwan ties.
On May 4, President Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger delivered an unprecedented formal address on the significance of the “May Fourth Movement.” It was unprecedented in a number of ways; no White House official had ever taken notice of the May Fourth Movement before, or had spoken at such length about any Chinese political movement — even Tiananmen; Mr. Pottinger delivered the lengthy address entirely in fluent Mandarin; his texts in both English and Chinese were posted on the White House website; and finally, his address mentioned Taiwan’s democracy in glowing terms. Then, on May 20, Mr. Pottinger delivered an encore performance, again in Mandarin, to congratulate President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on the inauguration of her second presidential term, this time video-recorded conspicuously on the White House grounds.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo also added an unprecedentedly warm personal message to President Tsai at her inauguration. His message overflowed with rich verbiage on “respect, admiration,” and “trust of the people on Taiwan,” “courage and vision,” and “Taiwan’s vibrant democracy,” topping it off with praise for Taiwan as an “inspiration to the region and the world.” It was the most effusive inaugural message I have ever read from a US Secretary of State to a foreign head of state.
I am sure the archivists in Beijing have gone through every similar statement for as far back as they have records. Secretary Pompeo’s message drives them particularly crazy. Mr. Pompeo lauded “Taiwan [as] a force for good in the world,” a “reliable partner.” He said American support for Taiwan “is bipartisan and unanimous.” He invoked “the TAIPEI Act, which strengthens our overall relationship and supports a closer economic partnership.” Oh? Perhaps that wasn’t enough? “We [The United States and Taiwan],” the Secretary continued, “have a shared vision for the region — one that includes rule of law, transparency, prosperity, and security for all.” Of course, he dared not overlook current news: “the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for the international community to see why Taiwan’s pandemic-response model is worthy of emulation.”
He finished off this panegyric by stressing “I am confident that, with President Tsai at the helm, our partnership with Taiwan will continue to flourish.” I have to admit, I truly don’t know of any other country that has ever gotten such personal attention from any previous American secretary of state.
So, in this new pandemic era of multi-screen virtual conferences, I was surprised that Mr. Pompeo suddenly dropped everything on Tuesday, June 16, to fly out to an Air Force Base in Hawaii for an unscheduled, closed meeting with his de facto Chinese counterpart, Politburo member Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪), on June 17.
According to press reports, the Chinese side requested the meeting with Mr. Pompeo, whom they habitually revile in the most vituperative terms. Perhaps Mr. Yang suppressed his dislike for Mr. Pompeo to deal with two immediate crises, an imminent G7 foreign ministers’ statement on Hong Kong, and the imminent vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s obstruction of nuclear weapons inspection safeguards. Taiwan, it seems, was an afterthought.
If so, Mr. Yang’s mission failed. The G7 issued its harsh criticism of China’s violations of international law the day after the Pompeo-Yang meeting. And the IAEA voted 25-2 against China and Russia, both of whom the United States immediately blasted for “attempting to shield Iran from scrutiny.”
And the day after Secretary Pompeo departed Hawaii, he stopped in Orange County, California, to see relatives. In a miracle of the modern internet, Mr. Pompeo in California up-linked to the long-scheduled “Copenhagen Democracy Summit 2020” where the three featured speakers were (in roughly rank order) Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, “President of Republic of China (Taiwan)”, Vera Jourova, Vice President of the European Commission, and himself. “The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy” and the “European Endowment for Democracy” were among the many sponsors. The only governmental sponsor was the American embassy in Copenhagen (with its “Great Seal of the United States” displayed on the website).
President Tsai’s address to the summit — “Defending Democracy during COVID-19” — was serious, methodical and non-controversial. By contrast, Mr. Pompeo’s remarks on “China and the Challenge to Free Societies” was an unvarnished condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad, untempered by whatever camaraderie seven hours of “frank and open exchanges of views” with Yang Jiechi might engender. In his prepared remarks, Mr. Pompeo avoided mentioning Taiwan at all. His moderator, former NATO Secretary General (and former Danish Prime Minister) Anders Fogh Rasmussen, prodded the Secretary of State: “You also mentioned Taiwan. I think we agree that Taiwan is a beacon of democracy, a real contrast with mainland communist China. What more do you think we could do to defend the Taiwanese democracy? And shouldn’t Taiwan be allowed, for instance, to join WHO and maybe other international organizations?”
Pompeo happily agreed: “So, it’s widely known how hard many countries, the United States amongst them, worked diligently to allow the Taiwanese Government to participate at least as an observer as part of this most recent World Health Assembly.” He explained that Taiwan “handled this coronavirus very, very well; they have high-end technology and high-end pharmaceutical capabilities, high-end scientists. We think it would be very useful for them to be part of the conversation that surrounds how the world is going to respond to the continuing pandemic.”
Certainly, a symbol of the entirely new relationship between the United States and Taiwan is the new quarter-billion-dollar AIT office complex in Neihu. AIT now proudly displays the “Great Seal” above its imposing portcullis, something rarely noted at AIT’s previous home, the dilapidated “US Military Assistance and Advisory Group” Compound on Hsin-I Road dating from the middle of the last century. In 1979, the “MAAG building” was intended only to be a temporary venue for AIT’s “embassy-like” functions, yet for forty years AIT languished as an illegitimate step-child in the State Department. AIT’s modern new facility and the new regard for Taiwan in official Washington signal that Taiwan has achieved a new international status. The new question is: how to sustain that status.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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