US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has conveyed in no uncertain terms that the time for ambiguity and confusion about the status of US-Taiwan relations has come to an end. The pronouncement by Pompeo codifies a pattern that US President Donald Trump’s administration has already made a de facto reality: a new era of engagement with Taiwan.
While the Democratic Progressive Party and several minority parties in Taiwan welcome this move, there is still resistance to this development by some in Taiwanese politics.
The past few years have brought many positive changes to diplomacy for Taiwan — more progress has been made during this period than in any year since 1979, when official relations with the US were discarded in the interest of engaging with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The repercussions of this decision have been myriad, both for Taiwan and the US. However, there is now the possibility of having a new policy regarding Taiwan relations that spans multiple administrations in the US.
When undue diplomatic restrictions are normalized in geopolitics, it becomes difficult for countries to know what problems their global counterparts are facing, and to be able to exchange and cooperate freely in order to solve them.
Embedded within the concept of the liberal world order we live in is the idea that we are a community of nations, with mutual and interacting interests. When we arbitrarily add friction to diplomatic channels, it not only harms the interests of individual nations, but also faith in the global order.
Considering this, the change in US Department of State policy is not only good for US-Taiwan relations, but for international relations as a whole.
The loosening of engagement policy is important because it initiates a change in Taiwan-US relations on a practical diplomatic level. The US’ Taiwan Travel Act was an important breakthrough — but if diplomats were previously concerned about whether they were sanctioned to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts in circumstances other than travel, space has been cleared for them to do so by Pompeo.
The changes also create strategic space for future administrations in Taiwan and the US. By widening the Overton window (the range of policies popularly acceptable) in the waning days of the Trump administration, Biden would have to actively revoke the changes in order to return to the former “status quo.”
Pompeo has moved to create breathing room for the next administration to engage with Taiwan on its own terms, without walking on eggshells about overstepping a previously sacrosanct precedent of rigid and restricted contact between US diplomats and their Taiwanese counterparts, for fear of the Beijing’s ire.
That ire has nonetheless been swift in its response: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said that Pompeo was “staging a final show of madness” and would “pay a heavy price.”
Neither Taiwan nor the US can afford to, or have a history of, being coerced into compliance by the statements of a spokesperson for an authoritarian one-party state.
For its part, Taiwan needs to avoid making this a political issue. A middle power working in the limited space between two antagonistic nations does not have the luxury of spending political resources infighting. This is why recent bombastic comments from several Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers are so concerning.
KMT Legislator Alex Fai (費鴻泰) criticized US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft (whose scheduled visit to Taiwan this week was canceled for domestic reasons) personally, by saying that she is a “wicked guest, and should not come.”
May Chin (高金素梅), a blue-leaning independent legislator, echoed a Beijing talking point by saying that the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) was “interfering in internal affairs,” and described the AIT as the equivalent of a colonial governor’s office.
This kind of “wolf-warrior” rhetoric exposes a troubling resistance by some legislators to increased diplomatic contact between two democratic partners.
Taiwan’s diplomatic progress in the past year will not continue indefinitely. Between complex domestic political posturing, an increasingly assertive and vocal China, and a changing of the guard in the US, Taiwan must secure gains now and shore up its diplomatic defenses.
The changes in policy from the US Department of State, and the visits of high-level officials, such as US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, are a positive development for the US and Taiwan — and should be used as the tools that they are: an opening of the diplomatic workspace for further cooperation toward common interests.
Chen Kuan-ting is CEO of the Taiwan Nextgen Foundation and a former member of staff at the National Security Council. Maxwell Wappel is a research fellow at the foundation.
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