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Taiwan’s diplomatic dilemma

Another delegation of ‘former’ US officials has visited Taiwan, but more is needed from the Biden administration

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo eats snacks from Taiwan (Twitter, Mike Pompeo photo)

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo eats snacks from Taiwan (Twitter, Mike Pompeo photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — U.S. President Joe Biden has dispatched a delegation to Taiwan comprising former Senator Chris Dodd and former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg.

Dodd left the Senate in 2011 and has since worked as a lobbyist and lawyer. He is a close friend and confidant of the president.

Meanwhile, Armitage is a Republican who left office in 2005 and has lobbied for arms companies to sell weapons to Taiwan. Steinberg left office in 2011 and moved into academia at Syracuse University.

Any official delegation from the U.S. is to be welcomed, but the one word that unites all of these men is "former." None of them currently hold any meaningful power within the U.S. government, and the decision to send them is, of course, quite deliberate.

It is a choice made by the Biden administration, or perhaps Biden himself. The Taiwan Travel Act 2018 allows American officials at any level to visit Taiwan and meet their counterparts if they so wish.

In addition, back in January, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted all State Department restrictions on official visits to Taiwan, saying they were "self-imposed" and designed to "appease" China. The State Department under Biden has continued down this path, announcing last week it would introduce new guidelines facilitating contacts between U.S. and Taiwanese officials.

Pineapple wars

Speaking of Pompeo, hot on the heels of the social media photo of him eating a Taiwanese dried pineapple snack while playing chess, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Tien Chung-kwang (田中光) confirmed at a legislative interpellation on Monday that Pompeo is very likely to visit Taiwan this year.

That’s "former" Secretary of State Mike Pompeo! What this illustrates is a diplomatic hurdle for Taiwan.

It has Western allies saying the right thing, speaking in broad principled terms about supporting Taiwan's democracy and rights, but when it comes to taking action to back up those words, they are still falling short.

The Biden administration is saying the right things. However, when Secretary of State Blinken was put on the spot in a recent interview about whether the U.S. would "defend Taiwan militarily," he stuck to a carefully prepared phrasing designed to offer support without upsetting China or committing the U.S. to anything.

The same can be seen in the most recent delegation. There was a chance to show genuine support for Taiwan by sending senior government officials, but instead Biden and Blinken opted for a group of “former” senior officials.

Why? The same reason. It avoids upsetting China too much while still showing support for Taiwan.


The U.S. is not alone in this approach. British Minister for Asia Nigel Adams was asked in the House of Commons earlier this week about Chinese incursions into the Taiwanese ADIZ and what conversations had taken place with Taiwanese officials about the issue, and his reply was similarly phrased to commit to nothing at all.

In Canada, the government of Justin Trudeau has reportedly even gone so far as to threaten to withdraw funding from the Halifax International Security Forum (HFX), which is thought to be considering awarding its John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

It is clear that many Western politicians support and sympathize with Taiwan. Why else would so many end up visiting once they have left office?

But when they are in office, they do not openly support the country. Why not?

The obvious reason is fear of reprisal from China, either against themselves or Taiwan, though none will ever admit as much. Another problem is that diplomats and civil servants are so entrenched in their "one China" that the prospect of deviating from it is as alien to them as it is the CCP itself.

International supply chains and the global economy are also far too dependent on China, and when given the choice between publicly backing Taiwan and facing the economic consequences, continuing to walk the "status quo" tightrope and keep the money flowing is an easy choice for most.

The question for Taiwan is what needs to happen to change this.

Encouraging the diversification of global supply chains to remove reliance on China is one key thing. Building up the importance of Taiwan in key areas such as high-tech manufacturing would have an effect too.

Continuing to emphasize shared values and the differences between Taiwan and communist China is already having some effect. The increasingly multilateral response to China from the Western world may well embolden governments.

There is no one route over this diplomatic hurdle. But one thing is clear: pretending that maintaining the status quo is enough to protect Taiwan is not going to work forever.