It remains to be seen whether the advertisement placed by the US State Department in the classifieds section of this newspaper over the weekend will prompt a reaction from Beijing, but some academics in Taiwan have already interpreted it as a presage of a shift in diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the US.
The ad requested solicitations for contractors to build, among other things, a Marine Security Guard Quarters (MSGQ) at the future American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) building.
Let’s for the moment put aside the fact that US foreign policy has become so militarized that “better” diplomatic relations is now being equated with the presence of armed US Marines on foreign ground, or the surreal prospect of having Marines posted to a relatively safe city like Taipei at a time when the US military, with its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and commitments elsewhere, is already stretched to the limit.
What matters here is the symbolism of an MSGQ as well as the conspicuous timing of the request for a proposal.
Whether the presence of US Marines at a diplomatic compound is a sign of more official relations is debatable. But given the sensitive situation in the Taiwan Strait, it wouldn’t be surprising if in the coming weeks Washington played down the significance of the change, as it will not have gone unnoticed by a Beijing that is hypersensitive when it comes to Taipei’s foreign relations. Surely the State Department knew this, just as it knew that the ad would end up, one way or another, in the hands of officials in China.
So why now, following the election of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), when relations between Taipei and Beijing show a chance of improving? Why not last year, when polls showed “anti-US” sentiment in Taiwan at an historic high following Washington’s humiliation of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and, by extension Taiwanese, as the nation sought to gain membership in the UN and the WHO? Or at times, such as in 1996, when tensions were high enough that a clash in the Taiwan Strait could have put the security of US diplomats in Taiwan at risk?
Surely, security concerns stoked by local animosity toward US officials and the symbol of their presence in the country would be the main reason behind the need to post Marines.
The answer, perhaps, lies in the very chance of a rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing, an outcome that some in Washington now fear could sideline the US and undermine its strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Could it be, then, that the simple placing of an ad that suggests (at least from Beijing’s perspective) the normalization of diplomatic relations with Taipei serves a purpose that is far beyond soliciting contractors? Could it be that it is a means to maintain tensions in the Taiwan Strait at a level that the US has grown accustomed to and one that justifies its presence in the region?
Let’s give Washington the benefit of the doubt; maybe it’s just bad timing. But hidden motives or not, whatever happens next is contingent on how Beijing interprets and reacts to the news.