De facto US embassy gives Taiwan ties a boost

The new American Institute in Taiwan building is being unveiled at a time when ties between Washington and Taipei - long kept low key to avoid angering Beijing - have been elevated to levels not seen in decades.
The new American Institute in Taiwan building is being unveiled at a time when ties between Washington and Taipei - long kept low key to avoid angering Beijing - have been elevated to levels not seen in decades.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Lift to diplomatic presence from new facility, as other nations cut links

TAIPEI • On June 12, in a leafy, middle-class neighbourhood in Taiwan's capital Taipei, the unofficial, Cold War-era relationship between the island and the United States is getting a major upgrade.

That is when the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the US embassy here in all but name, will hold a ceremony to formally unveil a US$250 million (S$334 million) office complex that resembles a university research centre, just with guarded gates and blast walls.

It will be a visible boost to US ties with Taiwan at a time when the number of official foreign diplomatic missions here continues to dwindle.

The new facility, which sits on a 6.5ha site, will give far more visibility, and aesthetic appeal, to the understated US diplomatic presence here, currently spread across multiple offices in Taipei. Its main office is a small, drab 1950s-era former military building.

AIT is getting a facelift at a moment when ties between Washington and Taipei - long kept low key to avoid angering Beijing - have been elevated to levels not seen in decades. That is due in part to the administration of President Donald Trump, who took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen after he was elected, and has since given prominent jobs to people known here as "friends of Taiwan", including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

In March, Mr Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows more high-level visits between Taiwan and the US. There has been speculation that Mr Bolton may visit, which would make him one of the highest-ranking American officials to visit Taiwan since the US withdrew diplomatic recognition in 1979.

Beijing, however, has also contributed to the changed mood with its more blatant efforts to pressure Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that China views as a breakaway province even though it has never been under communist rule.

China, which has vowed to use force if Taiwan ever declares independence, has sent bombers around Taiwan's main island and a new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, through the strait separating Taiwan from mainland China.

In March, the Trump administration responded by approving the sale of submarine technology to bolster Taiwan's ability to defend its waters, outraging Beijing. Taiwan has stepped up efforts to make its case more forcefully in Washington, including a more active use of social media.

While the US closed its official embassy in Taiwan, it has maintained an unofficial presence here via the institute, which is headquartered in Virginia, not Washington. Legally described as a non-profit organisation, the institute is staffed by US diplomats who issue visas and perform most functions of a regular diplomatic mission. The institute has about 450 diplomats and local staff, roughly just under half the size of the US Embassy in Beijing.

While the June 12 ceremony may fall on the same day as a landmark summit meeting between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it will be big news in Taiwan. Ms Tsai will attend, as will Taipei's Mayor Ko Wen-je. The main focus of attention, however, has been on who will represent the US, and how high-ranking that visitor will be.

A high-level visitor will be a symbolic lift for Taiwan. In the last month, Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic both broke off relations, wooed away by China.

The last high-profile American official to visit Taiwan was deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher, who came in 1978 to announce the end of official diplomatic ties. An outraged mob attacked Mr Christopher's limousine, pelting it with eggs, mud and rocks. He escaped with minor cuts.

Whoever shows up, Taiwan will seek to present itself as a reliable, democratic ally and an indispensable regional partner to the US.

"The new compound reinforces the US-Taiwan relationship at an important time," said senior director Tiffany Ma at government affairs consultancy BowerGroupAsia.

"As Taiwan faces increasing pressures from China's military coercion, influence campaigns, and efforts to undermine Taiwan's international space, the compound sends a crucial message that the US remains very much vested in Taiwan."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2018, with the headline 'De facto US embassy gives Taiwan ties a boost'. Print Edition | Subscribe