U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong traveled to Taiwan this week on an official visit under the recently approved Taiwan Travel Act. The visit took place without strong condemnation from China.
The Taiwan Travel Act was approved March 16 to encourage more official visits between Taiwan and the United States despite lack of formal diplomatic relations. Democratic, self-ruled Taiwan for its part wants to expand relations with other countries. China sees Taiwan as part of its territory, not a state entitled to foreign diplomacy. It protested the act Wednesday.
Wong’s most publicized event during the three-day visit that ended Thursday was a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei alongside Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
Analysts say Wong ranks too low to stir more than a pro-forma protest from Beijing.
“The gentleman who came to Taiwan this time, (his) level is not very high, relatively young,” said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. “I think for this young gentleman, it’s more symbolic than a substantive contact.”
Test of the travel act?
Before the bill’s passage, senior U.S. officials had visited Taiwan six times since 1979. That year formal relations broke off, and Washington formed diplomatic ties with China. The U.S. government still sees Taiwan as a staunch informal ally.
In 2014, Washington sent its highest-level visitor, then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.
Wong would have visited Taiwan this week even if not for the Taiwan Travel Act, a publicist for the island’s foreign ministry said Thursday.
But the timing of a visit days after passage of the travel act will put China on alert for more such exchanges, analysts believe. China passed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait Wednesday but did not say whether U.S.-Taiwan relations had sparked the move.
“It remains unclear to the Chinese as to whether (U.S. President Donald) Trump is using the issue to push China to make concessions on other fronts, such as trade,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in the United States.
“Mainland (China) will protest against Wong’s travel, and will likely punish Taiwan for it,” Sun said.
If U.S. Marines were sent to guard the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei or if a U.S. warship visited the island, China would get angrier, Liu said. When the U.S. Congress approved a bill last year allowing naval exchanges, a Chinese official said any naval ports of call in Taiwan would spark a military response.
China’s foreign ministry protested Wednesday over the Taiwan Travel Act, but at a media briefing Thursday it declined to comment directly on Wong’s visit.
“We urge the U.S. side to … stop official exchanges and contacts in any form with Taiwan (and) prudently and properly handle issues associated with Taiwan, so as not to cause serious damage to China-U.S. relations and to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Wednesday.
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, but China insists on eventual unification. Taiwan democratized in the 1980s, and government surveys show most Taiwanese oppose unification with Communist China.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, backed by a party that advocates further distance between the two sides, disputes the Beijing view that both belong to a single China. The two sides have not spoken formally since she took office in 2016.
U.S. official asks for stronger Taiwan ties
Wong told the chamber Wednesday he wanted stronger Taiwan-U.S. relations.
“Tonight should be about looking forward,” he said in the speech. “Yes, we’ve done much to deepen U.S.-Taiwan relations. But my message tonight is this: Lets. Do. More.”
Taiwan should “no longer be excluded unjustly from international forums,” he said, a possible reference to China’s pressure against Taiwanese participation in the United Nations and other multi-country organizations.
The U.S. government will do its “part to ensure Taiwan’s stellar international example shines brightly,” Wong added.
Taiwan can also work with the United States to strengthen “the free and open order of the Indo-Pacific,” Wong said. China’s island building and military activity in the contested South China Sea have prompted Washington to send naval ships and show it considers the sea an international waterway.
China is likely to see Taiwan-U.S. exchanges of official visits as a card played by the U.S. government, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. China would play its cards in return, he said.
“Apart from officially protesting pro forma almost, I don’t think Beijing will make a big fuss,” Lin said. “Beijing probably mostly will work behind the scene putting pressure or talking to Washington quietly for exchange of whatever.”