President Tsai Ing-wen’s high-profile US visits keep Taiwan in spotlight and send message to Beijing

22-Jul-2019 Intellasia | AFP | 6:02 AM Print This Post

For most international travellers, a stopover is an inconvenience on the way to a destination. For Taiwan, a stopover can be the most important part of the trip.

Far more than changing planes and browsing airport shops, the self-governed island uses presidential stopovers to expand its modest global footprint and resist Beijing’s bid to keep it out of the spotlight and starved of diplomatic recognition.

As Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen wraps up a 12-day visit to the island’s dwindling number of Caribbean allies, her “layovers” in New York last week and Colorado through Saturday represent some of Taiwan’s highest-profile stopovers in memory.

Over a span of four nights in the US, she has met with ambassadors, senators, administration officials, delivered speeches and faced down pro-Beijing protesters all on the heels of US approval for a $2 billion arms deal with the island.

 (South China Morning Post)

(South China Morning Post)

“I’d imagine Tsai Ing-wen is as happy as could be,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council. “It’s been highly successful.”

These presidential stopovers are carefully vetted and choreographed by the US State Department, which at times hasn’t let Taiwanese presidents stray much beyond baggage claim. Their length and scope tend to be a barometer of US-Taiwan relations, which are gaining altitude, and US-China ties, in steep descent amid a year-long trade war, mutual recriminations and growing education, technology and visa irritants.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province, has loudly protested past US stopovers in keeping with the one-China policy. Under its terms, Washington downgraded official ties with Taiwan in 1979 as a condition for normalising relations with China even as it remains committed to defending the island militarily.

Beijing’s response to Tsai’s current trip has been relatively muted, although past pressure tactics can be seen in documents obtained by the South China Morning Post through US Freedom of Information requests.

“China opposes official exchange between the US and Taiwan,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on July 12. Washington should not allow Tsai to transit and must “stop the official exchange with Taiwan”, he added.

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Analysts see a two-pronged approach. Even as China steps up pressure on Taipei announcing “routine” military exercises amid displeasure with the US arms deal and with Taipei’s vocal support for Hong Kong protesters it has been less vocal than usual in decrying Washington for granting Tsai’s time on the big stage.

Tsai has taken full advantage of the opportunity under the guise of (very slowly) changing planes. “Taiwan is not and will never be intimidated,” she said during a speech last week in New York.

China’s outwardly restrained stance suggests it’s on the defensive, unsure how to respond to US President Donald Trump’s aggressive and unpredictable style and aware that its traditional pressure tactics aren’t very effective in the United States now, analysts said.

Beijing’s approach, whether involving foreign countries, American states or businesses, often involves wielding subtle or not-so-subtle threats to cut off Chinese investment, trade and tourism if its objectives are not met.

“They’re still in shock that the US is engaging with them this way with the tariffs and are back on their heels,” said Dan Blumenthal, Asian Studies director at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Their playbook, it’s just not working as well as it used to for them.”

One reason its pages may seem a bit frayed is growing US distrust of China, which makes it easier for those feeling under pressure to push back, analysts said. Other factors include only limited evidence that the Trump administration even listens to US states and companies that argue China’s corner, and Tsai’s particular stopover choices this time.

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Colorado, which Tsai is visiting on Friday and Saturday, isn’t inclined to pay Beijing much notice. Its powerful Republican senator, Cory Gardner, is a full-throated Taiwan supporter and has made four trips to Taipei. New York, meanwhile, is too big and economically diverse to succumb to such pressure tactics.

“I think New York would relish the chance to tell them to go to hell,” said Walter Lohman, Asian Studies Centre director at the Heritage Foundation. “These entreaties are having less impact.”

Officials from a third planned destination for a Tsai stopover sparsely populated Wyoming may have indirectly responded to Chinese pressure, aware that Taiwanese visits aren’t quickly forgotten in Beijing. When Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon sat down with Marian Orr, mayor of the state capital Cheyenne, last month to discuss Tsai’s possible visit, the two got into a heated argument.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a forum at Columbia University in New York on July 12. Photo: EPA-EFE/Taiwan Presidential Office Handout

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Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a forum at Columbia University in New York on July 12. Photo: EPA-EFE/Taiwan Presidential Office Handout

“The governor expressed his frustration in an inappropriate way and the mayor took umbrage,” said Michael Pearlman, the governor’s press secretary, without going into details.

The Wyoming stopover was subsequently cancelled, though Pearlman said the change appeared to be tied to logistics on Taiwan’s side.

Other versions not mutually exclusive, they point out from persons close to those involved were that the US State Department nixed the stop, and that Mayor Orr had invited Tsai but that the newly elected governor, keen to boost state mineral exports to China, had other ideas, leading to some table-banging and harsh words.

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A State Department spokeswoman said Washington would closely monitor any moves by China that unfairly disadvantage US firms and would “urge the Chinese government to refrain from imposing its political views on US and foreign companies”. But she did not address Beijing’s pressure tactics on states. The agency has played down Tsai’s stopovers as “private and unofficial”.

Some of China’s traditional pressure tactics are evident in documents around a US stopover Tsai made last year in Houston.

A letter dated August 11, 2018, from Houston Consul general Li Qiangmin to Texas Governor Greg Abbott shortly before Tsai’s arrival criticised Tsai for pursuing flagrant “Taiwan independence” and “separatist activities” that were landing cross-Strait relations in crisis.

This was not the time to let the Taiwan issue threaten strong Texas-China trade and investment ties, Li said. Any US “discourteousness” would “much hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”, and Abbott should “neither contact, meet nor support Tsai during her stay in Houston”, Li wrote.

Portions of Chinese officials’ letters to the governors of Iowa (left) and Texas in 2018.

Portions of Chinese officials’ letters to the governors of Iowa (left) and Texas in 2018.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. Phone calls to Chinese consulates in Houston and Chicago went unanswered despite repeated attempts.

Other documents show Taiwan working equally hard to keep Texas on its side, with Taiwanese Foreign minister Joseph Wu touting the island’s billions of dollars in investments and energy purchases there. “The Great State of Texas holds a special place in our heart,” Wu wrote.

Letters also show China hoping that support from US governors might convince Trump to back down last spring as the trade war loomed. Li initially took a soft approach in a May 23, 2018, letter to Abbott, citing China’s extensive Texas investments and the state’s “beautiful landscape, cultural and sports events”, with an indirect nudge for Abbott to help bolster US-China relations. He ends it with an invitation to visit China.

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Two months later, in a letter dated July 30, Li’s tone was more pointed. He flattered Abbott as a thoughtful, responsible governor before adding that Chinese investors interested in Texas “have now chosen to wait” given uncertainties but that Abbott could “play a leading role” in improving US-China economic ties. The trip to China was not mentioned this time. Instead, Li invited Abbott for “some wonderful Chinese cuisine”.

This echoes a blunter July 8, 2018, letter from Chicago Consul general Hong Lei to Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. Hong wrote that US trade accusations were “groundless and unreasonable”, urging Reynolds to “use your influence to persuade the US administration to return to a rational and pragmatic trade policy”.

There is “no forced technology transfer in China”, Hong argued, and competition from Chinese manufacturers would “never force US companies out of the market”. He then ended defiantly, saying that China would not alter course or “recoil” under foreign pressure.

“Therefore,” he added, “I sincerely hope you can exert your influence.”



Category: Taiwan

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