All the pomp of a proper reception was there to greet Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen on her trip to the United States in early June, and the U.S. government indicated that a similar welcome would await prospective Kuomintang presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu on a future visit.
The United States is well-aware of how long Taiwan has been elbowed out of the international arena and that the Taiwanese people can be somewhat prickly about their sense of national identity, often perceiving the smallest slights as issues of sovereignty and respect. For example, Taiwanese actress Shu Qi’s nationality being listed as Chinese at the Cannes Film Festival quickly threw Taiwanese netizens into a furor.
As the Chinese Communist Party continues its operations in the South China Sea, Taiwan’s importance is also on the rise, and the United States will have to satisfy the heartfelt political aspirations of the Taiwanese people if it is to keep the “Taiwan card” in hand. In service to that cause, in February the vehicles of Taiwanese representatives in the United States were issued diplomatic license plates.
More recently, the United States has only continued to sweeten the pot, announcing on May 7 that former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kin Moy would be serving as director of the American Institute of Taiwan in Taipei, the highest-ranked official ever to take on the post. On May 31, Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Charles Rivkin visited Taiwan, setting another mark for the highest-ranking State Department official to ever make such a trip. On June 3, Tsai Ing-wen paid visits to the White House, State Department and National Security Council. The next day in another unprecedented move, the AIT, unprompted, published a picture of Taiwanese Chief of the General Staff Yen Teh-fa attending the U.S. Pacific Command’s changing of command ceremony. And on June 11, actively serving U.S. military officers openly attended a Taiwanese military demonstration.
The United States is consistently sending signals to the Taiwanese people that despite, or perhaps because of, intense pressure from Beijing, it is willing to do its utmost to realize the heartfelt political aspirations of the Taiwanese people. Although official relations do not exist between the United States and Taiwan and the United States does not legally recognize Taiwan as an independent state, in action if not in word, Taiwan is most certainly a “political entity” and a government with real sovereignty, one that is often deliberately treated as being no different from a state. The United States constantly skirts the lines of the “one China” policy, a fact that of course elicits protestations from Beijing, but is simply met with broken record-style reiterations of the Three Joint Communiques and Taiwan Relations Act by the United States.
Americans understand how deep nationalistic sentiment runs within the Taiwanese and are mindful of supporting their passion. Moreover, further protestations from Beijing only bring the Taiwanese people closer to the United States.
In the past few years, Beijing has also been made aware of this phenomenon. After Xi Jinping’s rise to power, he permitted the establishment of channels between mainland China’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, but always grudgingly. China’s recent decision to waive visa requirements for Taiwanese traveling to the mainland itself should have been a positive development, but most certainly could have been announced jointly on both sides of the Taiwan Strait if China had informed the Mainland Affairs Council beforehand. The result was that the intentional sidestepping of the Taiwanese government and unilateral announcement made the council feel disrespected.
Of course, Beijing is well within its rights to make such announcements by itself, just as with the declaration of new shipping lanes without first negotiating an agreement. However, the resulting opposition from both major political parties in Taiwan will not only ultimately delay implementation of China’s desired measures, but force it to restart talks with our government.
Cross-strait relations are highly sensitive, and although Beijing’s intentions may be pure with its ruling that cards be issued in place of Taiwanese entry permits, the move will be interpreted as nudging Taiwan toward the path of Hong Kong and Macau in being made into a special administrative region. It was no simple task to establish channels of communication between the governments on opposing sides of the strait, and those links must be handled with care to build mutual trust. If Beijing continues to forge ahead alone in changing mainland travel permits for Taiwanese into cards without showing any willingness to consult with Taiwan, it is unlikely that the two sides will grow any closer.
Tsai Ing-wen has proposed to pursue cross-strait relations under the Republic of China’s constitutional system and Hung Hsiu-chu speaks of the two sides as two constitutional governments within China, but Beijing is only willing to speak about both shores being of one family and is unwilling to acknowledge the Republic of China’s constitutional government. This is not only the greatest remaining obstacle in the way of developing cross-strait relations, but it has also presented the United States with a golden opportunity ripe to exploit.
The author is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Political Science.
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