New US Taiwan office prompts questions over who’ll lead it

The new American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) is seen in Taipei, Taiwan June 2, 2018. — Reuters pic
The new American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) is seen in Taipei, Taiwan June 2, 2018. — Reuters pic

TAIPEI, June 12 — The precarious balance Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen must navigate between a more assertive China and the uncertainty of American policy was in focus today when she attended the opening of a new de facto US embassy.

The American Institute in Taiwan’s new building, located on a leafy hillside in the Taipei suburb of Neihu, was opened by its director Kin Moy, who in the absence of official ties between the US and Taiwan is the de facto American ambassador to the self-governing island. Moy will then step down in the coming weeks with no successor named to replace him, adding to the 47 other US diplomatic missions around the world that currently don’t have ambassadors.

“Taiwan has no better friend than the United States,” Moy said at the dedication ceremony today. “The United States is here to stay.”

But a vacant post in Taipei would add to the unpredictability Donald Trump’s administration has injected into the relationship, which for four decades has underpinned the island’s security. It’s an issue that’s come to the fore as China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory — to be united with the mainland by force if necessary — has accelerated efforts to convince the few countries that still have diplomatic ties with Taiwan to end them.

Leadership matters

“It is the leadership there that makes a difference, not protocols,” Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute in London, said of the new AIT building. “The Trump Administration has been slow to fill key posts in the State Department, which is bad for US allies in East Asia, Taiwan included. This just makes it worse,” he said by email.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has frozen ties with Taipei since Tsai came to power in 2016 and refused to accept — as her predecessor had — that Taiwan is part of China under a framework for dialogue between the two sides. In recent months, Beijing has increased the pressure on Taiwan, dispatching regular military flights around the island. Last month, Burkina Faso severed official ties with Taiwan in favor of China, leaving just 18 countries around the world that recognize the government in Taipei.

Despite severing official ties with Taipei in 1979, Washington has acted as the backstop for Taiwan’s security through arms sales and a vow to intervene should China attempt to claim Taiwan by force. But the Trump presidency has added unpredictability.

Phone call

In December 2016, then President-elect Trump accepted a precedence-shattering phone call from Tsai to congratulate him on his election victory, marking the highest-level contact between the two sides in almost 40 years. That call and Trump’s subsequent questioning of the US policy of recognising Taiwan and China as one country spurred tensions with Beijing.

It wasn’t until February 2017 that those tensions were assuaged when Trump reaffirmed the US “one-China” policy during a phone call with Xi. Since then, the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies have focused on trade and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

In Taipei today, Marie Royce, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, was the most-senior US official present at the opening of the new AIT office.

Some 2,000 miles away in Singapore, Trump met with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for historic talks. — Bloomberg

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