US-based diplomatic observers say that interaction between Taiwan and the US has grown in intensity over the past few months, falling short of establishing official relations.
Although the interaction is still below the cabinet level because of Washington’s “one China” policy, these observers see a growing propensity in US political circles, across both sides of the aisle, to support Taiwan’s distinct political culture, the outstanding features of which are its vibrant democracy and respect for human rights, along with a thriving economy.
The question often debated in academic and foreign policy research circles is whether the US would put boots on the ground to defend Taiwan in a military conflict. Washington’s policy on Taiwan — which is articulated in the Taiwan Relations Act — is characterized by strategic ambiguity, which also leaves China unsure of the US’ response in the event of a military attack on Taiwan.
Isaac Stone Fish, CEO of Strategy Risks, a firm focused on quantifying risks related to China, recently said in an interview that “more and more voices [are] calling for the United States to shift from a policy of strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity with respect to Taiwan.”
“I think that one of the things Beijing is doing with its aggression with Taiwan is trying to test the United States on where its red lines are and what would Beijing have to do to trigger a US military response,” he said. “So in some ways what the US is trying to do is clarify its position toward Taiwan and there’s a lot of strategic ambiguity built into these policies, but Beijing wants to know how much they can do without the US responding so that when they feel confident to mount an actual attack, they are much more in place than they would be otherwise.”
Despite its strategic ambiguity, the US is a staunch Taiwan supporter. The two might not maintain formal diplomatic ties, but they do maintain representation in each other’s countries, although Taipei does not use the moniker “Taiwan” for its representation. Taiwan’s representation in New York, for example, is known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, the nation’s de facto diplomatic mission. Taiwan’s overseas representations in much of the world do not call themselves embassies or consulates.
Despite its diplomatic isolation, Taiwan should further build up its soft power, which — in direct proportion to China’s growing unpopularity in the West — has found admirers. Indeed, culture is a key weapon in Taiwan’s arsenal. It has developed its own distinct cultural identity, manifested in its Aboriginal dances and age-old traditions, such as the Confucian form of Buddhism and its tolerance of minorities. Added to this is the growing popularity of Taiwan as a tourism and culinary destination, with returning foreign tourists praising its hospitality, its modern infrastructure and ease of travel.
Taiwan’s growing popularity in the international arena has also led to paranoia among Chinese diplomats who fear that this could someday lead to Taiwan’s formal recognition as an independent state. The call to extend formal recognition to Taiwan has been heard, although still in low-key tones, not only in the US, but also in Australia, Europe, India and Southeast Asia. US President Joe Biden has on several occasions issued a direct or implicit “hands off Taiwan” warning to China.
Political contacts with Taiwan have also increased. After a US congressional delegation visited Taipei a few weeks ago, another five-member bipartisan delegation of US representatives visited Taiwan during the week of the US holiday Thanksgiving despite Beijing’s protests.
US Representative Nancy Mace, one of the five delegates, wrote on Twitter that “when news broke of our visit to Taiwan, the Chinese Embassy demanded we cancel the trip (we didn’t). We’ve had a productive and meaningful visit throughout the Indo-Pacific region as the first bipartisan US House delegation since the start of COVID.”
Chinese diplomats were even more alarmed by the last line of her tweet: “This is just the start.”
The visit is clearly a show of strong bipartisan support for Taiwan in the US in the face of escalating Taiwan-China tensions, and China’s pressure tactics to exert control and authority over Taiwan. US politicians are closely monitoring the increasing number of Chinese military flights occurring close to Taiwan.
Besides the security aspect, the visit was also driven by economic considerations. US House Representative Elisa Slotkin, also a member of the delegation, wrote on Twitter that “the auto industry’s largest supplier of microchips is here in Taiwan, so supply chain issues will most definitely be on the agenda. When news of our trip broke yesterday, my office received a blunt message from the Chinese Embassy, telling me to call off the trip.”
Despite China’s attempts to block the trip, and the stern and highly undiplomatic tone of its messages to the US House of Representatives, observers in Washington said that the delegates’ interactions with Taiwanese officials was warm and friendly. Indeed, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) wrote on Twitter: “A pleasure to welcome our #US friends to #Taiwan. I thank the representatives for their support, and look forward to productive discussions on how to further strengthen bilateral ties.”
Notwithstanding the sharp protests by China — its foreign ministry spokesman warned the US that it was “playing with fire” with its support for Taiwan — the Biden administration, shortly before Thanksgiving, invited Taiwan to participate in the US-led virtual Summit for Democracy on Thursday and Friday next week.
About 110 nations have been invited to the summit, which is being touted as a flagship presidential initiative to illustrate the Biden administration’s three-pronged commitment to bolstering democracy and countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights. China has not been asked to attend.
Beijing, reacting angrily to Taipei’s invitation, sees the three major issues as a challenge to its authoritarian regime. An assessment of China’s governance makes it clear that it is still a communist ideology with scant or no respect for the rights of its people, including in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
The outbursts by China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats venting their anger over growing Taiwan-US interactions, seem to be falling on deaf ears. This is also because of the frequency of such outbursts, many times on frivolous and unmerited issues.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based journalist who writes extensively on foreign affairs, diplomacy, global trade and economics.
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