07.04.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

What Message Lies Behind the Latest Foreign Tour by Tsai Ing-Wen?


On 21 March, the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, embarked on an eight-day foreign tour, which included three countries in the Pacific Ocean (Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands). This trip once again refocused our attention on the topic of Taiwan’s role in the “global game of chess”, as the relationship between the two world powers (the United States and China) is shifting towards the “board’s” epicenter.

The previously mentioned topic includes many aspects, and one of these is often referred to as the “controversial international status” of Taiwan. The term “controversial”, however, is used mainly by U.S. political scientists, while in China the nation’s status is not described in this manner. In Beijing, the island is viewed as an integral part of “one China”, and the reasons why, at present, Taiwan is not de facto under the jurisdiction of the PRC are purely incidental and historical in nature.

The majority of world’s nations directly or indirectly share the previously mentioned stance. And, currently, only 17 countries maintain official diplomatic ties with Taipei. We would like to remind our readers that in 1971 Taiwan lost its seat at the United Nations to the PRC, and hence, it is no longer a member of this organization. The three, previously mentioned “mini”-nations in the Pacific Ocean, are among the 17 countries (also mostly “small” in size) that continue to view the Republic of China (the official name of the island) as a sovereign state under international law.

As a matter of fact, the aforementioned majority has also included the United States since 1979. However, as previously reported on a number of occasions in the New Eastern Outlook, Washington’s actual policy towards Taipei (which depends on the extent the key element, mentioned earlier, of the “global game of chess” manifests itself) increasingly begins to resemble a “normal intergovernmental” one.

The reason why the aforementioned foreign tour of three nations in the Pacific Ocean garnered attention is that Tsai Ing-wen, on her way back home, made a “stopover” in Hawaii, a U.S. territory, on 28 March. This “short visit” was meant to serve as an illustration of the “normal intergovernmental” ties between the United States and Taiwan. It is possible to state, with great certainty, that “the layover” in Hawaii was the main aim of the Taiwanese President’s latest foreign tour.

It is also important to clarify that the terms such as “stopover”, “incidental”, “happenstance”, “layover” are quite inappropriate in this particular case. If we take a look at the map of the Pacific Ocean, we can see that the order in which Tsai Ing-wen paid official visits to these islands (Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands) took her further and further away to the east from Taiwan. Instead, she came closer and closer to Hawaii, which happened to be a slightly shorter flight away from Taiwan in comparison to that from the Marshall Islands.

In an attempt to address anticipated criticism from China on the nature of such a “layover”, the US Department of State stated that this visit was “based on long-standing US practice, and is consistent with the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan”.

And, in reality, such activities are gradually turning into “long-established practices”. However, up until that point, geographic locations of the places that Tsai Ing-wen visited during her foreign tours allowed her to use any of the previously mentioned terms to define her “unofficial” stops in the United States.

In Hawaii, Tsai Ing-wen confirmed her request to the U. S. Department of Defense (DoD) to purchase 60 F-16 fighter aircraft and a consignment of Abrams tanks, with the aim of ensuring “self defense” of Taiwan and “deterrence” of “you know who”. All of this happened despite the warning made by China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson a week earlier at a press conference, where he stated that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan would severely damage “the Sino-U.S. cooperation in important spheres”.

These additional developments associated with Tsai Ing-wen’s foreign tour overlapped with other noteworthy events of recent months, which involved Taiwan, the United States, the PRC and Japan.

First of all, speeches given by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and by US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Philip Davidson in front of two different committees of the US Congress on 29 March are certainly noteworthy.

It is important to highlight that a pro-Taiwan lobby has been active in Congress for decades. One of its latest moves was a letter addressed to President Trump from 16 senators from both parties. The authors of the letter requested that the U.S. President send a Cabinet-level official to Taiwan to the celebrations of “the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act” (a pivotal document approved by the United States Congress on 10 April, 1979), which is used to govern the U.S. ties with Taiwan.

The pro-Taiwan members of U.S. Congress never miss a more or less suitable opportunity to inundate administration officials with questions, such as “What exactly are you doing to support our Asian ally in its confrontation with our main opponent?”. An official then needs to demonstrate to these Congressmen that “concrete actions” are being taken in good measure.

For instance, Mike Pompeo highlighted that the administration and U.S. Congress worked together on adopting the so-called “Taiwan Travel Act” (H. R. 535) at the beginning of 2018, which legally allows high-level officials of the United States to visit Taiwan and vice versa. After saying this, he was asked to invite the President of Taiwan to visit the United States (officially, and not via a “layover”).

Mike Pompeo avoided giving a direct answer to this question, and instead talked about another development that demonstrated U.S. “support” of Taiwan. In his opinion, this amounted to two U.S. Navy ships sailing through the Taiwan Strait on 24 March of this year. The event coincided with the previously mentioned foreign tour embarked on by Tsai Ing-wen. It is also worth noting that China’s leader Xi Jinping was also on his first for the year official trip abroad (in Europe) during the same period.

Admiral Philip Davidson’s speech in front of U.S. Congress was in line with the previously mentioned statements, made by Mike Pompeo. The military official said that Beijing was responsible for the rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

He also referred to Tsai Ing-wen’s commitment to “avoid confrontation and prevent surprises” in the strait in his speech. This is yet another illustration of the firm control that Washington has over key aspects of Taipei’s foreign policy.

Another recent event, worthy of note, was the fact that Japan joined Taiwan and the US “in co-hosting an international workshop“, whose all-encompassing title, Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), allows its participants to discuss a wide range of international political issues.

The theme of the workshop, held on 27-28 March in Taipei, was the currently fashionable issue of “combating corruption in the public and private sectors”. The United States and Japan were represented at the workshop by the American Institute in Taiwan and the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, respectively, which essentially function as de facto embassies of these countries in Taiwan.

It is quite important to note that most Taiwanese residents as well as the leadership of the island (irrespective of party affiliation) have a positive opinion of Japan. In fact, this favorable view also applies to the period when the island was occupied by the Empire of Japan, and this is what makes the relationship between Japan and Taiwan radically different from that between South Korea and Japan.

Finally, it also worth focusing on internal developments taking place in Taiwan, which began in anticipation of the upcoming presidential election, scheduled to be held at the end of next year. We would like to remind our readers that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered a substantial loss in the election for the Legislative Yuan, which took place on 24 November 2018.

Tsai Ing-wen accepted the responsibility for the defeat and left her post as the leader of the DPP party. As a result her participation in the upcoming presidential was in doubt. In order to dispel this uncertainty, Tsai Ing-wen definitively confirmed her participation in the election before her aforementioned foreign tour. Her suitable age, high qualifications, charm, energy and “work experience” (as they say) ensure that Tsai Ing-wen has a chance of being re-elected as the President of Taiwan.

And the latest foreign tour, among other things, was of utmost importance in the context of the upcoming battle (within the DPP as well as at the national level) for the top position in Taiwan.

If Tsai Ing-wen is re-elected as the President of Taiwan, it will mean that the period of serious trials and tribulations for the region and for the relations between the island and key countries will continue well past 2020, for at least 4 more years.

Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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