WASHINGTON [Special Commentary]: It is just a teensy-weensy change, a change of one little syllable. It is barely noticeable unless you’re watching really carefully: The Tai-“pei” Representative Office in Washington, D.C. (TECRO) could soon change its name — just ever so very slightly — to Tai-“wan” Representative Office. The office’s “TECRO” initials would remain the same. It will be only a symbolic change.
London’s Financial Times reported last week that such a change may soon be coming. The timing was a bit awkward, though. The FT’s report came out on the very same day that Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) and Taiwan’s national security team were in nearby colonial Annapolis a few minutes from D.C., where he was holding his regular discreet “Special Channel” talks with top Biden White House, Pentagon and State Department officials.
These “Special Channel” meetings have been a fixture of Washington-Taipei diplomacy for at least twenty-five years. They became more frequent and higher-level in the Trump Administration. In fact, unlike most Trump policies, the Biden Administration has preserved the Trump White House’s close ties with Taiwan’s foreign policy and defense leaders.
The FT’s news was even more awkward because President Joe Biden spoke with Chinese State Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) for about an hour-and-a-half late Thursday night, September 9 (Friday morning, the 10th, for Chairman Xi). In fact, one suspects that Chairman Xi knew about Minister Joseph Wu’s presence in the Washington area and timed his call for maximum awkwardness.
In truth, President Biden had asked Xi for the phone call some time ago. I surmise that, since Biden’s press secretary didn’t mention a call during her Thursday press briefing, it is likely that Xi agreed to the phone conversation on very short notice.
Perhaps the Chairman believed he would have an advantage if the the call took place during Beijing’s mid-morning when he was bright and alert, and past ten o’clock in Washington’s night when President Biden was not.
The short notice and inconvenient timing were tactically adroit for Mr. Xi, who could prepare extensively for the encounter, while Mr. Biden likely had to be briefed and coached for the phone call during a small window of time in the early evening.
When the call was put through, Mr. Biden read from a script prepared by “Asia Czar” Kurt Campbell. Biden underscored to Xi that both China and the US have a “responsibility … to ensure [that] competition does not veer into conflict,” but the “readout” of the 90-minute conversation by the White House press office the next day was barely four sentences long. Biden’s press secretary, when asked the next day, had no idea if “Taiwan” had been mentioned at all.
The Chinese foreign ministry did have an idea. In a press release that went on for seven wordy paragraphs, the Chinese side quoted Biden saying “the US side has no intention of changing the one-China policy.” The ministry also revealed that Chairman Xi complained to Biden that, “for some time, the China-US relationship has run into serious difficulty, due to US policies on China.”
Xi warned Biden that US hostility “serves neither the fundamental interests of the people of the two countries, nor the common interests of countries around the globe.” Xi also expected both sides to respect each other’s “core concerns” and “to manage their differences appropriately.” Xi also informed Biden of China’s “initiatives to actively shoulder international responsibilities befitting China’s national conditions.” China is now a global superpower, Xi implied, and it will act like one.
The White House press release said nothing about any “one China policy.” Biden stressed America’s “enduring interest in peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region”; in the Chinese foreign ministry readout the term “Indo-Pacific” was nowhere to be found.
Given the discrepancies in these morning-after versions of who said what, it is likely that neither the White House nor Zhongnanhai (中南海) was happy with the Biden-Xi telephone call. The Chinese side seemed to know that Taiwan’s foreign minister was in Washington and hoped to interject the “one China policy” (note: not the “one China principle”) into the conversation. It is also reasonable to think that the Financial Times’ report on TECRO’s name change was leaked for the same reason — but perhaps by a Biden insider who hopes to torpedo the TECRO name-change decision.
Within hours of the Financial Times’ “TECRO” disclosure, the Chinese English-language media filled with commentaries and editorials threatening dire consequences if TECRO’s “pei” ever morphed into “wan.”
China isn’t kidding. Beijing withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania because Taiwan is to establish a “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania,” as announced by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in July. Lithuania’s ambassador in Beijing was sent home. Surely, the Chinese English media fulminated, Beijing could do no less to Washington.
Except that China’s new Ambassador in Washington, Qin Gang (秦剛), is roundly disliked, having advised an audience of welcomers — which included Henry Kissinger — that America “please just shut up” about China if it doesn’t agree with it. If “Wolf Warrior Qin” returned to Beijing he would not be missed.
America still doesn’t have an ambassador to China. Nicholas Burns is awaiting Senate confirmation, and to be perfectly candid, he is too nice and even-tempered for Beijing. (I have often mused that salty-tongued former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Biden’s choice for Tokyo ambassador, has a temperament more suited for China diplomacy.)
On Sunday, September 12, the People’s Daily newspaper published an authoritative commentary in Chinese on Chairman Xi’s phone call with President Biden. It portrayed America as an unrepentant villain — the world’s leading developed nation — seeking “to deliberately constrain and suppress” China, the world’s leading “developing nation.” Hostility and confrontation between Washington and Beijing are due wholly to America’s “error-ridden mindset” and incorrect policies. China is preparing its communist party cadres for a major rift with the US.
Chinese media aimed at American readers blamed Taipei for the TECRO business. Taiwan’s leaders have bamboozled the Americans. The foreign-directed Chinese media threatened dire military initiatives against Taiwan, such as jet fighters in Taiwan airspace, but unfortunately, China’s airspace pressures have been an ongoing irritant for over a year.
One Chinese pundit writing in English said, “It is anticipated that the Taiwan army will not dare to stop the PLA fighter jets from flying over the island. If the Taiwan side dares open fire, the Chinese mainland will not hesitate to give ‘Taiwan independence’ forces a decisive and destructive blow.”
However, such a demonstration is likely to induce a replay of the 1996 Taiwan Strait scenario which involved two US aircraft carriers and resulted in the first direct “Special Channel” communications between Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) Presidential Office and the Clinton White House. China’s current belligerence not only deepens Washington’s defense commitment to Taiwan, but also ensures that Taiwan is welcomed into the new Indo-Pacific security architecture that is now crystalizing from New Delhi to Tokyo.
China warns that a “single character could spark a prairie fire” if “pei” becomes “wan,” but as of now, it is more likely that any prairie fire would blow in China’s direction regardless of whether China attempts to limit its backlash to economic sanctions or goes full “Pearl Harbor” and attempts military and “Gray Zone” force of arms. It seems a horrible over-reaction to a teeny-tiny character — an over-reaction for which the world would only blame China and its communist leaders.
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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