This weekend, the US is to welcome President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) during her “transit” in Honolulu. She is to stop in Hawaii’s capital on her way to visit the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands, nations in the South Pacific that maintain diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (ROC).
Tsai’s transit/visit in Honolulu benefits from three trends.
First, this stopover by the nation’s president is part of an evolution of visit-like “transits,” involving significant security and other advance preparations, as well as public activities and overnight stays.
Since 1994, the US response to requests from the nation’s presidents to come to the US has evolved from initially denying former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) entry, to allowing restricted transits for former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), to relaxing restrictions in favor of visit-like “transits” for the safety, comfort, convenience and dignity of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Tsai.
In 1994, the US allowed Lee to make a refueling stop and rest only in Honolulu’s airport. Then, US Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 53 to support Lee’s visit in 1995 to Cornell University, his alma mater.
Since then, there has been a need to correct the misperception — part of China’s political warfare — that Lee “provoked” the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “respond” to a “surprise visit” with military exercises and missile launches in the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995 to 1996.
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military threat to Taiwan has been growing since the early 1990s, not just because of Lee’s visit.
PRC rulers had by 1993 already decided on a new Main Strategic Direction that built military capabilities to target Taiwan. In 1994, the PLA conducted a command post exercise that used the scenario of an invasion of Taiwan.
Second, since Lee’s experiences from 1994 to 1995, the US Congress has permitted Chen, Ma and Tsai to come for numerous “transits” in various cities, meeting with members of Congress and other Americans for direct engagements.
In July, senators Cory Gardner and Tom Cotton introduced the Taiwan security act that included support for senior defense and diplomatic visits between the US and Taiwan.
The US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on Oct. 12 approved the Taiwan travel act, introduced to encourage visits between officials from the US and Taiwan at all levels.
Third, under Tsai, the Democratic Progressive Party leadership has evolved to stress the “status quo” and stability, while facing the difficult situation of continued PRC threats.
In her Double Ten National Day address, Tsai said that “since May 20 last year, we have exerted maximum goodwill in order to safeguard the peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations.”
In addition to Tsai benefiting from the trend toward visit-like transits, Honolulu is the most appropriate transit place from the historical perspective of Taiwan’s engagement with the US and Polynesia.
Tsai is to visit an important site that serves as a connection to ROC founding father Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), whose portrait is prominently displayed in government offices, including in the formal room of the Presidential Office where Tsai receives foreign visitors.
During his formative years of academics and activism, Sun traveled from China to study in Honolulu, including at Iolani and Punahou schools. The Punahou school is former US president Barack Obama’s alma mater.
Moreover, scientists have studied Taiwan as an origin for ancestors of Polynesian peoples.
Taiwan is committed to cooperation with nations across the Pacific, funding a program at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Since 2012, this Pacific Islands Leadership Program with Taiwan has built up leadership capability in Pacific nations.
The ROC maintains diplomatic ties with Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.
Tsai’s “transit” highlights certain issues for US policy and leadership in showing the world how to engage with a democratic partner. Relevant US legislation includes the proposed Taiwan travel act.
One issue is whether to allow visits by Taiwan’s top leaders. Another issue is whether to allow them to meet with officials from the US executive branch, such as the US Department of Defense and Department of State.
The State Department may not restrict members of Congress from meeting with Taiwan’s president. While some Cabinet-ranking officials may visit from the US and from Taiwan — including its defense minister — Taiwan’s president, vice president, premier and vice premier may not visit the US.
A third issue is whether to have phone conversations, if not meetings, for direct engagement on important matters, such as the phone call between then-US president-elect Donald Trump and Tsai in December last year.
President Tsai’s stopover in Honolulu highlights the historical connections of Taiwan to the peoples of the Pacific, including Americans.
Her experience in Hawaii also contributes to the evolution in US policy and leadership to allow visit-like “transits,” with potential implications for the development of policy approaches in Washington and other national capitals.
Shirley Kan is a retired specialist in Asian security affairs who worked for the US Congress at the Congressional Research Service and is a member of non-profit Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory board.
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