Midday in Manhattan on Wednesday, September 16, was sunny and mild. Even with the pandemic’s “social distancing” it was a perfect day for “al fresco” dining with linen tablecloths and sidewalk potted palms outside one of New York City’s elegant restaurants.
Two members of the press, outfitted with digital SLR cameras and voice recorders, were dispatched by The Associated Press to cover a rare outdoor diplomatic meeting on one of these New York streets. American diplomat Kelly Craft, Chief of the United States Mission to the United Nations, lunched in the open air with Taiwan’s ambassador-ranked representative in New York, James Lee (李光章).
The two diplomats smiled for the cameras, spoke to their interviewer with obvious delight, not in the least annoyed by the attention. Of course, the AP did not discover the two senior diplomats lunching on a Manhattan sidewalk by accident. The encounter was set up well ahead of time by the USUN (United States Mission to the United Nations) press officer on orders from the US State Department. The USUN press officer pre-supplied the AP with pre-cleared background and insights into US policy — on an off-the-record basis.
The reporter was none other than the AP bureau chief at the UN, Edith Lederer, a highly respected 50-year veteran of breaking international news starting with the Vietnam War, the 1973 Arab-Israel War, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, and the beginning of the Gulf War in Kuwait, to name a few. She’s been the AP’s eyes-and-ears at the United Nations since 1998. Judging from her web-profiles, Ms. Lederer’s special interest is the America-China rivalry at the UN.
Ambassador Craft confided to Ms. Lederer that the lunch was not her idea. Rather, just after ambassador Lee arrived in New York on August 11, he phoned to invite her to lunch, and she accepted. Indeed, such is normal protocol, except that the US usually keeps office-calls by Taiwan officials very discreet; even informal meetings are low-key (and this one certainly had to be choreographed carefully with the State Department). Amb. Craft said the tete-a-tete was “a nice way for the host country to welcome [Amb. Lee] to New York, and hear about his family and experience.”
But she also hinted she agreed to meet her Taiwanese counterpart at the instruction of President Trump: “I’m looking to do the right thing by my President,” she said, “and I feel that he has sought to strengthen and deepen this bilateral relationship with Taiwan and I want to continue that on behalf of the administration.”
Ms. Lederer’s news report then made an editorial observation probably conveyed to her, through Amb. Craft, from the State Department on a not-for-attribution basis: “Warmer American relations with democratic Taiwan … appear to show how the Trump administration is willing to defy Beijing’s threats and promote an alternative to Chinese Communist Party authoritarianism.”
This echoed earlier Trump Administration hints. In a remarkable address on the centennial legacy of the “May Fourth Movement,” delivered in spoken Chinese, the President’s deputy national security advisor Matt Pottinger said: “The cliche that ‘Chinese people can’t be trusted with democracy’ was, as both P.C. Chang and Hu Shih knew, the most unpatriotic idea of all. Taiwan today is a living repudiation of that threadbare mistruth.” Last month (August 31), Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell spoke at The Heritage Foundation: “I know many of you have witnessed Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and civil society in action. In walking the streets of Taipei, I marveled at the openness of Taiwan’s society, and the seamless integration of its democratic system with traditional Chinese civilization, Confucian values, and indigenous cultures.” Admittedly, there is still in Washington a strong sense of Taiwan’s “Chinese-ness” — but with a Taiwanese twist.
Nonetheless, the State Department now signals that China’s aggressiveness in the Taiwan Strait is pushing the United States to move away from the idea of Taiwan’s “Chinese-ness” and away from America’s “Three Communiques” commitments.
In August, the State Department formally de-classified several key documents from the “Six Assurances” file of 1982. Those papers reveal that American willingness to restrict arms sales to Taiwan was “conditioned absolutely” on China’s pursuit of a “peaceful resolution” of its differences with Taiwan. Public release of those documents a month ago also, for the first time, provided an authoritative public enumeration of President Reagan’s “Six Assurances” to Taiwan.
The publication of such historical records clearly is intended for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s (習近平) consideration — not for Taiwan’s. They prove that for the past forty years Beijing has either deluded itself, or intentionally deceived its own people and the world, that the “Three Communiques” involved no commitment or promises or conditions to be met by China.
The Trump Administration now judges that China has no intention of keeping its side of the “peaceful resolution” bargain — in large part because, for forty years, Beijing has suffered no consequences for ignoring it. The Trump Administration wants to ratchet up the pressure.
Just hours after ambassadors Craft and Lee lunched in New York on Wednesday, US Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach landed in Taipei Thursday to discuss bilateral economic and trade ties. (Mr. Krach’s was the highest-level visit by a US State Department official since 1978.) Also on Thursday, Assistant Secretary Stilwell briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on US-Taiwan relations but abandoned talking points about Taiwanese society being “Chinese.” Instead, he opened his statement saying: “Notwithstanding China’s aggressive behavior in the region, our relationship with Taiwan stands on its own and our relationship with Taiwan is not a subset of US-China relations.”
Then, on Friday, September 18, The New York Times reported that the Trump Administration is coordinating with Congress for a new Taiwan arms package “valued in the billions” in an effort to counter China’s “aggressive behavior.” It would include long-range standoff missiles, stealth surveillance drones, anti-ship missiles, sea mines and much more.
There is a deep sense of urgency in Washington to step up defense supplies to Taiwan because of the unabated Chinese threat; a threat embodied in China’s increasing military exercises, naval incursions and daily probes by dozens of Chinese fighter and bomber aircraft sorties.
But here is the terrible reality: China doesn’t care. And China’s advanced-technology military and naval power now matches the operational strength of the US, Japan and Australia, and other nations in the Indo-Pacific.
If the Indo-Pacific democracies are to counterbalance China, Taiwan must be part of the equation — immediately, if not sooner. For this to happen, Taiwan must be part of the international community. No doubt, Ms. Craft and Mr. Lee discussed this at lunch.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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