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Taiwan VP US Trip Tests Diplomatic Truce

  • Ralph Jennings

Taiwan's Vice President Wu Den-yih speaking at Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport before departing to New York.

Taiwan's Vice President Wu Den-yih speaking at Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport before departing to New York.

TAIPEI — Taiwan’s vice president is spending an unusually long four days in the United States this month, a move that would once have drawn formal protests from China. Vice President Wu Den-yih stopped in New York for private meetings on his way to visit allied nations in Latin America, and will stay in Los Angeles on the way home. Taiwan’s diplomatic truce with China helps smooth passages to North America while keeping a three-way peace.

Shortly after taking office in 2008, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou declared a diplomatic truce with China.

The one-sided statement ended the checkbook diplomacy of Taiwan’s past, when it and archrival China would pay off each other’s cash-strapped foreign allies to switch allegiance as the two sides vied for international legitimacy. As Taiwan’s count sank to just 23 allies and increasingly powerful China netted around 170, leaders in Taipei changed course.

Bruce Linghu, the Taiwan Foreign Ministry’s director general in charge of North American affairs, says the truce has allowed Taiwan to retain its formal allies, get closer to high-level U.S. officials and win visa waivers from 54 countries.

He says the diplomatic truce and its achievements are quite broad. Specifically, he says, ties with formal allies are airtight, while Taiwan’s participation in international events has progressed despite a need for more effort. He adds that relations with major countries such as the United States, Japan and European Union members have made it easier for common Taiwanese people to travel abroad without visas.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. Taiwan, self-ruled ever since then, sees its relations abroad as proof of the island’s autonomy. But with few formal allies, it has focused, since 2008, more on informal cultural and economic ties with major countries, remaining mindful not to challenge Beijing’s formal diplomatic relations.

China has never publicly recognized the diplomatic truce, which has held unchanged since 2008. But analysts say Beijing respects the ceasefire in private and fears that it may be called off if President Ma’s party loses a presidential election.

For now, Beijing has dropped its once strong protests against the United States that would accompany U.S. stopovers by high-level Taiwanese officials. China wants friendly ties with Taiwan as a step toward its goal of political reunification.

Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan, says the signing of a thorny, long delayed investment protection deal at talks earlier this month shows that China is willing to keep relations intact with Taiwan.

"Basically I think the PRC [People's Republic of China] still has some confidence in Ma Ying-jeou’s administration," he said. "Before these talks, a lot of scholars or commentators talked about this PRC unwillingness to do anything for Ma Ying-jeou or [that it] refused to play along. But from the talks, or the results, we can see that basically the PRC is willing to play along with Ma Ying-jeou’s administration."

In 2010, President Ma transited in the United States on his way to visit Latin American allies that cannot be reached by direct flight from Taiwan. China did not complain to the United States.

But when former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian transited in New York in 2001, Beijing lodged a protest with the United States as then-president George W. Bush was trying for closer relations with the rising economic power.

Chen, for his part, enraged Beijing and eventually irritated Washington with his pursuit of Taiwan’s formal independence from China. In 2006, he was asked to stop over in Alaska rather than a major continental U.S. city and nearly called off his trip in protest.

His U.S. stopovers were brief compared to Vice President Wu’s.

Ming Chuan University’s Nathan Liu says Ma’s second-in-command is being treated well by the United States.

"If we compare this with the Chen Shui-bian administration, then I don’t think Annette Lu, vice president of Chen’s administration, or Chen Shui-bian himself would have been treated this way, because in the second half of the Bush administration, President Bush was pretty suspicious of Chen’s actions. So I think this would be a good sign for the Ma Ying-jeou Administration," he said.

The de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei says the vice president’s stopovers this month are unrelated to Taiwan’s truce with China. It calls permission to land on U.S. soil a matter of comfort and convenience for Taiwanese officials bound for Latin America. Taiwanese officials still may be asked to avoid public events in the United States.

However, U.S. officials have signaled strong support for President Ma’s broader efforts to get along with China. In addition to sticking to its diplomatic truce, Ma’s government holds regular, upbeat meetings with Communist officials, and the two sides have signed 18 trade and economic deals. Tensions were too icy under Chen, from 2000 to 2008, for such dialogue. One clear sign of Washington’s support is a boost in visits from cabinet-level officials in Washington.

U.S. officials encourage stronger China-Taiwan ties so they can freely seek closer economic relations with Beijing while staying on the good side of Taiwan, which it is obligated by law to help defend against any outside attack.

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