Douglas Paal's departure from his position as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the arrival of his replacement Stephen Young and Raymond Burghardt taking up the post of AIT Chairman offers a great opportunity for improving US-Taiwan relations. It is also an important diplomatic point in President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) presidency and he should make good use of it.
With China's growing influence over world affairs, the main challenge for Taiwan in its relationship with the US is to convince Washington to support Taiwan without worrying about what China will think.
A case in point are the long-stalled negotiations on a Taiwan-US free trade agreement (FTA). Over the past year, the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) in Washington has been pushing the US Congress to pass a resolution in support of the signing of an FTA. Both Deputy US Trade Representative Karan Bhatia, during his visit to Taipei in May, and Paal in his recent Brooking Institution speech poured cold water on the idea of an FTA.
They both said that Taiwan still has a host of responsibilities to fulfill, and that US businesses currently do not care about whether or not the US and Taiwan sign an FTA. Bhatia even connected the signing of an FTA to the issue of direct cross-strait transportation links. However, I believe that these are all excuses by US government officials to cover the fact that they are simply afraid to anger Beijing.
The US is currently holding FTA talks with both South Korea and Malaysia. Since both countries are the US' 7th and 9th largest trading partners respectively, why doesn't it want to negotiate an agreement with Taiwan, the US' 8th largest trading partner? Many experts have also pointed out that Taiwan's purchasing power is much stronger than most of the nations that have already inked FTAs with the US. There really is no reason for the US' refusal to sign an FTA with Taiwan.
Another example are the restrictions on the exchange of visits by high-ranking US and Taiwanese officials. The US Congress has long been dissatisfied with the unwritten rule that Taiwan's elected leaders cannot visit Washington.
To US lawmakers, such restraints imply that China is directing US foreign policy and dictating who can and cannot visit the US. In addition to the current lack of communication channels between US and Taiwanese leaders, there are also restrictions on the exchange of visits by military personnel.
In recent years, Congress has continuously proposed resolutions aiming to grant top US military personnel permission to visit Taiwan. Those who support Taiwan find it unreasonable that low and middle-ranking Pentagon officials can visit Taiwan but that their supervisors are banned from doing so.
People like Paal, however, hold the opposite view and say that the visits by senior US military officers are not only unnecessary but also problematic. This kind of discriminatory decision making -- whereby Taiwan is not allowed what other countries are just because China doesn't like it -- can only have a negative impact on bilateral exchanges, and also makes a mockery of Taiwan's democracy.
With Paal's departure and the appointment of Burghardt and Young, and with Thomas Christensen -- who took over as deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Mongolian affairs last month -- joining the US State Department, the Chen administration should take advantage of the opportunity offered by these personnel changes to thaw the current frosty US-Taiwan relationship.