The American Institute in Taiwan: shifting locations amid a shifting US-Taiwan relationship

The completion and opening of operations of the AIT New Office Compound occurs in a rather precipitous political climate in East Asia

New AIT compound under construction.

New AIT compound under construction.

In June 2009, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) publicly announced that it had selected a site and begun development on a new location in Taipei's Neihu district. The site was to be completed in 3 phases, and originally, many had hoped the compound would be finished as early as 2015.

Now it appears after some delay, and quite a bit of speculation about the number and nature of facilities to be housed at the new 6.5 hectare site, the new AIT facility is likely to be opening its doors in the coming months. The project has been referred to as the AIT NOC (New Office Compound) by the state department and those involved with its development.

Although there has been no public announcement on move-in dates from Washington DC or the current AIT (located in central Taipei's Da'an District), the AIT began seeking moving coordinators for the shift to the new location in November last year, with an expected start date for the work in Summer 2017.

The new compound covers more than twice the space of the current 2.6 hectare AIT compound in Da'an, whose lease is set to end in July 2018. It is likely that the move to the Neihu site will be completed long before then.

In 2012, after the U.S. began granting visa waivers to Taiwanese visitors, the AIT announced the downsizing of its on-site staff. Many have since wondered about the idea of a smaller AIT work force necessitating a facility more than twice the size of the current one.

Current AIT office. 

Then the new compound briefly gained a bit of media attention in February 2017. The former director of the AIT, Stephen Young, when asked about the AIT NOC's security, responded that there were plans to house a detachment of U.S. Marines in the compound. Unsurprisingly, this raised quite a few eyebrows.

There has been no U.S. military officially stationed in Taiwan since April 1979, when the United States Taiwan Defense Command (USTDC) held its final flag retreat ceremony, following the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the PRC and the U.S. on January 1st, 1979. The AIT would be founded as a private entity under the auspices of the State Department shortly after that on January 15th, 1979.

Thus the statements from the former AIT director, though not official, were still enough to raise red flags and question marks about the future of the relationship between the United States and Taiwan, especially from the perspective of the PRC.

The completion and opening of operations of the AIT NOC, and speculation that the U.S. military may once again be stationed on Taiwan, occurs in a rather precipitous political climate in East Asia.

Recall that the plans for the AIT NOC were completed and development was begun during the Obama administration's “Pivot to Asia” which was widely seen as a diplomatic strategy to develop cohesive and stable partnerships with Asian countries that would otherwise fall under the influence and direction of China. 

Despite no longer being an official military protectorate of the U.S., from a military perspective, Taiwan has always been seen as a crucial lynchpin of the Asia-Pacific Security Architecture, because should China ever regain the island, U.S. dominance of the Pacific ocean would be imperiled.

Then, on September 18th 2017 the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, which includes some very important articles in regards to Taiwan. The most significant was approval of an estimated 1.4 billion USD in sales of weapons and defense equipment to Taiwan. There was also the provision that military cooperation with Taiwan and Navy Port of Calls would be set to resume once the act receives the President's signature.

Wikimedia Commons. 

All of these developments are coming in rapid succession and the opening of the new AIT compound in Taiwan must be viewed in the context of the whole. Given the additional saber-rattling between President Trump and Pyongyang over the latter's continued missile tests and provocations, it seems that the policy formerly known as the “Pivot-to-Asia” may be shifting into a new phase with a decidedly more militaristic orientation.

For now, it seems the move to the new AIT NOC is not garnering that much attention, but that would surely change if it was officially confirmed that the US was anticipating a return of troops, now matter how small the contingent, to the island.

Historically, Republican administrations do have a much better track record of defending and supporting the government in Taiwan, and it appears the Trump administration will be maintaining that precedent. Military cooperation in some form is certain to expand, however to what degree exactly, remains to be seen.

Either way, looking at the clock, it seems like the move to the new AIT compound and the start of U.S. defense spending for the 2018 fiscal year should coincide just about perfectly.