Reflections on the Opening of AIT’s New Building

Reflections on the Opening of AIT’s New Building

Reflections on the Opening of AIT’s New Building

Under sunny, blue Taipei skies, on June 12 the new office complex of America’s unofficial embassy in Taiwan was dedicated and opened before an enthusiastic crowd that included President Tsai Ing-wen and many other notable persons. The formal move from the ageing office complex on Xinyi Road is to take place this Fall.

This move is long overdue. The US Embassy on Nanjing Road was abruptly closed at the end of 1978 as American diplomatic relations shifted to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under President Jimmy Carter. A process first set in motion by Richard Nixon’s opening to China when he visited the PRC in early 1972.  

Taiwan was then headed by the Chiang family, which maintained an authoritarian regime after fleeing to the island in 1949 following the communist victory in the civil war. Though the Chiang’s did preside over the development of a prosperous economy on the island, they ruled with an iron hand. They also made it clear their hearts remained back on the “mainland,” long after political defeat forced them to retreat across the Taiwan Strait.

When relations broke off at the end of 1978, the embassy in Taipei was abandoned. The makeshift replacement structure of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) was housed in an old MAAG (military advisory group) compound on a side road in the Xinyi District of Taipei.  

AIT emerged from the ashes of de-recognition, with roughly 50 Americans and a couple of hundred local employees. The MAAG building, already nearly 30-years old at the time, was both too small, and rather seedy even back in the late 1970s.  Despite constant efforts to spruce the place up, the building was dilapidated and much too small to house the growing workforce that was to occupy it.

AIT’s American staff nearly tripled in size over the next 40 years, with similar growth in the supporting local staff. By the end of the century, several adjunct offices were operating separately around the city, to house AIT’s commercial, agricultural, public affairs and other branches of the institute. This was both inefficient and a significant security problem.

All of which called for the construction of a new building. Shortly after I arrived in AIT in the summer of 1998 to serve as deputy to AIT Director Darryl Johnson, he tasked me with finding a new location upon which to build a mission to replace the Xinyi complex. With the support of friends in the Taipei City and Central governments of Taiwan, I spent months looking at a number of potential sites around greater Taipei.  

The dawning of the age of terrorist bombings and the resulting need for setbacks around the perimeter of any diplomatic facility meant that we were going to need a much bigger footprint for this new mission. At the same time, convenience to our Taiwan clientele, whether visa seekers, government officials, businessmen, or American citizens, was also a major consideration.

With considerable support from my Taiwan counterparts, I explored several potential sites in and around the city. Some were too small. Others too remote. One site we were shown in Tianmu had an unfortunate history of flooding. But finally friends in the Taipei City Government drew my attention to a driving school out in northwestern Taipei’s Neihu neighborhood that might serve our purposes.  

I remember clearly the first time I walked around the site in 1999. It was certainly big enough, around five acres in size, with a modest hill toward the back providing both a scenic setting and a solid security feature. But I was initially a bit put off by the distance from downtown Taipei that this site presented.  

Among other concerns, I worried that our loyal local staff would not be happy to be commuting so far from their homes, many of which were located in the Xinyi District.  Friends in the Taipei City government assured me that there were already plans to extend the Taipei rapid transit system out to Neihu, in line with broad plans to further develop the area.   

Over the next two years, my AIT staff and I worked with the State Department’s management personnel back in the United States, as well as our friends in the Taiwan Government, to nail down the property. President Chen Shui-bian was supportive, as were Americanists like David Lee (李大維) in the Foreign Ministry. With the firm backing first of Director Johnson, and then his successor Ray Burghardt, I locked in this land for the successor to the Xinyi compound.  

I began negotiations with the management folks back in Washington to secure funding for the new complex, which as I recall we estimated back then might cost more than $100 million dollars. Due to a quirk in State Department budgeting, AIT was in the unique position to offer some of our own funds towards the project, since we kept the visa fees we collected, rather than turning them into the US Federal Budget as a regular mission would do. One of the nicer quirks of AIT, it turned out!

I left Taipei in the summer of 2001, confident that the new compound could be quickly funded and built in the course of 4-5 years, as was the case in most such projects. Thus, I was both surprised and chagrined, upon my return to head up AIT as its director in 2006, to discover that little progress had been made toward starting construction. To this date, I do not understand this, since by way of example, other similar missions had been funded and constructed in precisely that five-year window. I guess the moral is that everything is more complicated in this unique quasi-diplomatic puzzle.

As director of AIT, I worked with Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), President Chen and his successor, Ma Ying-jeou, as well as MOFA and Executive Branch colleagues. We faced some foot-dragging by the bureaucrats in the Office of Building Management back at the Department of State, but I worked closely with Undersecretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy to keep the momentum rolling.

Yet, as I found myself preparing to depart post in the summer of 2009, the process still seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace. So on June 22, 2009, I decided to stage a “site dedication” and groundbreaking ceremony out in Neihu to draw attention to the project. Among our Taiwan guests were Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-ping, Vice Premier Paul Chiu (邱正雄), and doyen of MOFA’s Americanist corps, Fred Chien (錢復). The ceremony was well covered by the local press, and we even got a photo on the front page of the Asian Wall Street Journal the next day!

I moved on to serve as Consul General in Hong Kong before retiring in 2013 after a 33-year diplomatic career. Whenever I queried my friends in AIT, I got the answer that things were progressing, but without the sort of final deadline I sought. I visited Taiwan often, and sought an update from AIT leaders each time I called on them.  Too often, it was “soon” but without an actual dateline.

Thus, I was encouraged when current AIT Director Kin Moy assured me the opening was scheduled for this year. When I got my invitation to attend the June 12 ceremony, I was so invested that I promptly booked my flight reservations at my own expense. In a sense, Kin Moy was taking a page out of my own book, as he was able to preside over the opening ceremony just before his tenure as AIT Director finishes. Though I understand the actual move into the new compound will take place this fall under his successor, former AIT Deputy Director Brent Christensen.

My brief tour of the site impressed me, and I know the staff of AIT—both local and American—will be thrilled to finally have adequate space to house all elements of the mission within one secure and spacious ground. With a MRT stop just minutes walk from the compound, the new commute should be convenient to our loyal local staff, with the plus of much more modern facilities in which to work.

As I have stated before, this opening of the new AIT compound provides “a 21st century Facility for a 21st century Relationship.” It sends the message, to friends and foes alike, that the United States commitment to our friends in Taiwan is unwavering and forward-looking.  

China has groused about the whole project, because it continues to hope somehow the United States will gradually distance itself from our friends on the island. But that is wishful thinking. The American commitment to Taiwan, its people, prosperity, and security, is stalwart and forward-looking. The new building symbolizes this important fact with mortar and concrete, as well as resolve on the part of the United States to protect our democratic friends in Taiwan from any attempt to coerce or intimidate them.

The main point: The new AIT Compound provides “a 21st century Facility for a 21st century Relationship.” It sends the message to friends and foes alike that the United States commitment to our friends in Taiwan is unwavering and forward-looking.