The Pentagon on Tuesday released a photograph of a visit by Vice Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) to the US defense establishment just as the absence of high-ranking US officials from the annual Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference sparked mounting speculation.
The photo, posted on the official US Department of Defense Web site, shows US Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter greeting Yang before their meeting at the Pentagon.
The post is seen as a rare move by the US government, which usually adopts a low-profile approach to meetings with Taiwanese officials.
After attending the Taiwan-US defense conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Yang headed to Washington. In addition to the Pentagon, Yang also visited the US Department of State and the National Security Council.
According to a senior Taiwanese diplomat who declined to be named, the absence of high-ranking US Department of State and Defense Department officials from this year’s conference has not affected high-level exchanges between Taipei and Washington.
Yang has frequently visited the US and maintains good communications with Washington, the official said, adding that the US government has not expressed its disagreement over the way in which Taiwan has dealt with Japan amid an ongoing territorial dispute over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
There has been speculation that the small US presence at the conference was a show of Washington’s displeasure over the standoff between Taiwanese coast guard vessels and their Japanese counterparts in waters near the island group late last month.
A US State Department official who had planned to attend the conference explained on Tuesday that he could not do so because many issues connected to Taiwan were unfolding, including the announcement of Taiwan’s membership of the US Visa Waiver Program.
Still, he said, the US State Department and Defense Department managed to send several representatives to attend the conference, which was a private industry event, not an official one.
He stressed that the US State Department has continued normal and healthy interactions with various sectors in Taiwan and maintains smooth communication with Taipei.
In Taipei yesterday, American Institute in Taiwan Director Christopher Marut, in response to media inquiries, said the absence of two US senior officials from the conference this year was due to a “schedule conflict.”
The absence was not a reflection of any dissatisfaction in respect to Taiwan’s recent handling of issues related to the Diaoyutai Islands, he said.
“[The conference] was a private industry event, not an official event. The US places great importance on its relationships with Taiwan and it remains committed to assist Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense provided under the Taiwan Relations Act,” Marut said.
“To that end, the Department of Defense maintains a robust and regular dialogue with Taiwan on defense and security issue, both with Taiwan civilian and military authorities. These are really key channels of communication,” he added.
Additional reporting by Shih Hsiu-chuan