Marines at AIT a symbolic gesture

By Edward Chen 陳一新  / 

Sat, Feb 25, 2017 - Page 8

At a policy seminar at the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington on Wednesday last week, former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director Stephen Young announced that a detachment of US Marines will be posted at the AIT’s new compound in Taipei’s Neihu District (內湖) once the move from the institute’s current premises is completed later this year.

Although the primary reason that the US stations marines at its overseas missions is to protect and uphold the security of its staff and assets, Young said that it will be “a symbolic expression” of the US’ commitment to its “friends in Taiwan.”

The decision would not alter the Taiwan-US diplomatic relationship in any material way. Nevertheless, the stationing of marines in Taiwan carries symbolic meaning and, in this sense, can be seen as a significant development.

Ever since former US president Jimmy Carter established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), high-level contacts between Taiwanese and US officials have been strictly off-limits.

A year after the US severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, Taiwan’s representative office in Washington attempted to invite the politically non-sensitive then-US secretary of agriculture to the office’s National Day reception, but it was blocked by the White House. It was not until former US president Ronald Reagan’s administration that the status of US officials attending the representative office’s annual reception began to gradually increase.

On Aug. 17, 1982, Reagan signed a joint communique with China, in which the US pledged to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan. However, one month prior to the signing of the communique, the Reagan administration had introduced the “six assurances” to the US Congress, which include a guarantee of continued US arms sales to Taiwan and an assurance that the US will not change its “long-standing” position regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty.

In 1992, before leaving office, then-US president George H. W. Bush cited the ending of the Cold War as a justification to sell Taiwan US-made F-16A/B jets and E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft.

In 1994, then-US president Bill Clinton agreed to the US Department of State’s proposal to adjust its Taiwan policy by changing the name of the Coordination Council for North American Affairs to the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office, and in doing so substantially elevated the Taiwan-US relationship.

In 2001, then-US president George W. Bush sold military hardware to Taiwan on a large scale, demonstrating the US’ commitment to assisting Taiwan in defending itself. Since 2005, the US has stationed military attaches at the AIT in Taipei, although they maintain a low profile and do not wear military uniforms.

In 2011, then-US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton made a speech in Hawaii, where she said that Taiwan is an “important security and economic partner” to the US. This was by far the most significant strategic reassurance that the US has provided Taiwan since the break of formal diplomatic ties in 1979.

Last year, then-US president Barack Obama signed into law the US National Defense Authorization Act, for the first time authorizing military exchanges between senior Taiwanese and US military personnel in uniform.

The decision to post US Marines at the AIT in Taipei is certainly not a major breakthrough, but it does contain several positive signs for the development of political and military relationships between Taiwan and the US.

First, it is standard practice for the US to garrison a detachment of marines at its embassies throughout the world. Prior to the breaking of Taiwan-US diplomatic relations, the US had a contingent of marines at its embassy in Taiwan.

Washington’s decision to recommence the stationing of marines at its mission in Taipei and to construct a marine house intended to function as a social center demonstrates that it intends to extend to Taiwan the treatment it gives other nations. There is a political aspect to this decision.

Second, in addition to their primary function of providing security for diplomatic staff, marines are also tasked with anti-terrorism work.

US President Donald Trump recently gave the Pentagon one month to formulate a strategy for attacking the Islamic State group in addition to other military plans to fight terrorist groups around the world.

Furthermore, Obama has called Taiwan an ally in the global effort to combat terrorism. Will Trump demand that Taiwan provide a greater contribution to the global “war on terror”? Taiwanese policymakers should think about this.

Finally, the marines stationed at the AIT will carry loaded weapons and wear military uniforms, which is different from US military attaches who, while in Taiwan, wear civilian clothes.

However, Taiwanese will have to wait and see whether the Trump administration will increase the quality and quantity of arms sales to Taiwan, deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system to Taiwan or substantially elevate the Taiwan-US relationship in other ways.

Edward Chen is a chair professor in Chinese Culture University’s political science department.

Translated by Edward Jones