US unveils de facto embassy in Taiwan amid cross-strait tensions

A construction signage is seen in front of the newly-built American Institute in Taipei (AIT) building in Taipei, on May 3, 2018.
A construction signage is seen in front of the newly-built American Institute in Taipei (AIT) building in Taipei, on May 3, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (REUTERS) - The United States unveiled a new US$256 million (S$342 million) representative office in Taiwan’s capital on Tuesday (June 12), a de facto embassy that underscores Washington’s strategic ties with the democratic, self-ruled island as it faces escalating tensions with China.

Washington cut diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979, but remains the island’s strongest ally and sole foreign arms supplier.

It opened the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) to conduct relations between the two sides after severing ties.

In comments certain to rile Beijing, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said the new complex was a reaffirmation of both sides commitment to a “vital relationship”.

“The friendship between Taiwan and the US has never been more promising. The great story of Taiwan-US relations remains to be filled with the efforts of those that will one day occupy this building,” Tsai said.

She added that so long as both sides stood together, nothing could come between them.

The new complex, a significant upgrade from the low-key military building the AIT had used for decades, will serve as the representative office later this summer, said AIT Director Kin Moy.

Marie Royce, US Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, said at a ceremony to mark the unveiling that the complex was a symbol of the strength and vibrancy of the US-Taiwan partnership.

“We have faced many trials along this journey, but we have risen to the challenge at every turn, knowing that our shared commitment to democracy would see us through,” said Royce, who is the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Taiwan since 2015.

In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry said they had lodged “stern representations” with Washington about the new building and the visit of the senior US diplomat.

“If any US official attends this activity, whatever their excuse may be, it violates the 'one China' principle,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing.

"We urge the United States to scrupulously abide by its promises to China over the Taiwan issue, correct their wrong actions, and avoid damaging China-US relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.

The sprawling new site occupies 6.5 hectares, including Chinese gardens, in Taipei’s Neihu district. 

AIT’s Taipei office has nearly 500 American and local employees, while its Kaohsiung branch has more than 30 staff.

The ceremony was attended by scores of high-ranking Taiwan officials as well as senior business executives, including Morris Chang, the former chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC), the world’s biggest contract chip maker. 

China claims Taiwan under its “one China” policy and Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring what it sees as a wayward province under its control.

China’s hostility towards Taiwan has grown since President Tsai was elected in 2016.

Beijing suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in Beijing. 

Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party's main newspaper, the People's Daily, said on Tuesday that China needed to warn Taiwan and the US against provocation. 

“The mainland must continue to build up its deterrence against Taiwanese authorities, making them know that the US cannot be their saviour,” it said in an editorial on the opening of the new office.

Taiwan has recently lost two diplomatic allies, the West African state of Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic which established relations with Beijing. Taipei has official ties with just 18 countries worldwide.

Some international companies have also changed their websites to show the island’s designation as being part of China. 

China has also stepped up military drills, sending bombers and jet fighters on exercises near the island that Taipei has denounced as intimidation.  Taiwan has lobbied Washington to sell it more advanced equipment, including new fighter jets, to bolster its defences.