Taiwan's de facto envoy to US attends Biden's inauguration

TAIPEI • Taiwan's de facto ambassador to the US was formally invited to President Joe Biden's inauguration in what Taipei said yesterday was a precedent-setting first since Washington switched recognition to Beijing in 1979.

Ms Hsiao Bi-khim, Taipei's envoy, posted a video of herself at Wednesday's inauguration saying she was "honoured to represent the people and government of Taiwan here at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice-President (Kamala) Harris".

"Democracy is our common language and freedom is our common objective," she added.

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said it was the first time in decades that a Taiwanese envoy had been "formally invited" by the inauguration's organising committee while the ruling Democratic Progressive Party described it as "a new breakthrough in 42 years".

The Kuomintang forces had fled the Chinese mainland in 1949 after losing the civil war to the communist forces and retreated to Taiwan, where it continued its claim to be the legitimate government of the whole of China, under the name Republic of China.

Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunited, by force if necessary. Beijing baulks at any official contacts with Taiwan and tries to keep the island diplomatically isolated.

Washington recognised Beijing over Taipei during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. But the United States remains democratic Taiwan's most important unofficial ally and is bound by an Act of Congress to sell the island weapons to defend itself.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen secured an unprecedented phone call with Mr Donald Trump after his 2016 election win, a move that infuriated Beijing.

Mr Trump also ramped up arms sales and diplomatic contacts, while one of his administration's last foreign policy acts was to lift restrictions that limited how US officials interacted with their Taiwanese counterparts.

Mr Biden's Taiwan policy is less clear-cut for now, but Ms Hsiao's presence at the inauguration hints at a continuation of his predecessor's precedent-setting changes.

Dr Kharis Templeman, a Taiwan-based expert at the Hoover Institution, described it as "a subtle gesture but a meaningful one".

In a tweet to President Biden after his oath of office, Ms Tsai said Taiwan "stands ready to work with you as a global force for good".

In a move seen to win hearts of Taiwanese, Beijing is touting a state programme that gives Taiwanese in China priority for Covid-19 vaccines.

China is making the free-of-charge offer at a time when Taiwan has yet to begin vaccinations of its own.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2021, with the headline 'Taiwan's de facto envoy to US attends Biden's inauguration'. Subscribe