Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s California and Texas transits late last month en route to diplomatic allies Paraguay and Belize broke the mold for such stops, underscoring the Trump Administration’s growing support for Taiwan. The visits predictably enraged Beijing and were the first since President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) into law on March 17. These momentous stops may also signal further gains for future visits and for US-Taiwan relations in general.
President Tsai met US Members of Congress and other officials from both parties in California and Texas which is nothing out of the ordinary. Yet, she also visited Taiwan’s de facto consulate in Los Angeles, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, which was a first for any Taiwan leader. And in contrast to past transits, Taiwan media outlets were allowed to cover her every move and to file stories along the way. The fact that the United States previously restricted such coverage might understandably surprise many. Taiwanese, thus, saw their own president moving around Los Angeles as might any other world leader. This was an important real-time media moment in Taiwan’s evolution.
There was also the sense that Washington really wanted Tsai here, pulling out all the stops to give her time on the ground the trappings of an official visit while on transit. Fans of the 1970s television show CHiPs will have enjoyed the sight of California Highway Patrol motorcycle cops escorting President Tsai around Los Angeles. This warm reception stands in stark contrast to Beijing’s efforts to turn Tsai into persona non grata the world over.
After attending an August 12 banquet for local Taiwanese expatriates upon her arrival, Tsai followed predecessors Ma Ying-jeou and Lee Teng-hui by speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on August 13. That she spoke in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall was especially poignant given that day marked the 57th anniversary of the Wall’s construction. Tsai channeled Reagan, saying, “[A]anything can be negotiated except that our freedom and our future cannot be compromised.” She was taking what Reagan said in 1986 about arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union and applying it to Taiwan’s standoff with Beijing today. A line was drawn.
The venue evoked President Reagan’s 1982 Six Assurances to Taiwan (assurances that Beijing would still be wise to heed today). It was also the first speech by a Taiwan leader on US soil since 2003. But after all, if Xi Jinping (whose citizens never elected him to anything) can visit President Obama in the White House and relax in palatial splendor at President Trump’s Mar a Lago resort, why cannot freely elected Tsai speak out loud for all Americans to hear? It is a longstanding double standard that President Trump thankfully appears to be tearing down.
Yet, the ‘real kicker’ was on her way home when, having addressed local expatriates the night before, President Tsai toured the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Johnson Space Center on August 19th in Houston. This made her the first Taiwan leader to enter a US federal facility since the United States switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979.
True to form, Beijing had a minor meltdown, suggesting Tsai’s visits violated America’s own One-China policy. Not that Washington owes Xi Jinping any explanation on how it welcomes and interacts with its friends, but Tsai’s visit in fact did not violate the US One-China policy (which Beijing too often seems to purposefully mistake for its own One-China principle). But, now that Xi’s propagandists mention it, the US One-China policy is actually long overdue for a strategic rethink, and Tsai’s groundbreaking visits will hopefully only contribute to any already growing momentum for such a review.
Nothing concrete came out of Tsai’s stops like an arms sale, or a trade deal, but the almost red carpet treatment she received here further drives home Trump’s growing support for Taiwan. What could be next?
The TTA encourages governmental visits at all levels from and to Taiwan. The fact that Trump actually signed it into law, as opposed to just letting it become law without signing it, suggests that he wanted to send someone a message. He wanted somebody to know something. Xi Jinping, maybe (even though Trump still calls him his good friend)? One can interpret Tsai’s trip the same way.
Trump cannot let autocratic-rival-Beijing dictate when, where, and [most importantly] if we meet Washington’s friends. To paraphrase then-President-elect Trump’s unnecessary defense of his taking Tsai’s congratulatory call in November 2016, why should he not meet someone to whom the United States sell weapons? And, if Trump can enjoy a lavish Singapore summit with murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose grandfather killed thousands of American soldiers, why can he not meet one of the United States’ most valued unofficial allies?
Congress, no matter which party is in control (Taiwan’s always enjoyed strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill), would love to see Tsai in Washington, and may even ask her to address a joint session.
Although polar opposites when it comes to identity, it is worth remembering that then-Republic of China (ROC) First Lady Madame Chiang Kai-shek became the first Asian woman to address a joint session of Congress in 1943 (albeit when Taiwan was under Japanese control). So, why not now have Taiwan’s first female president also address the chamber? Congress can help force Trump’s hand on a Tsai Washington, DC visit by inviting her to speak, but he might not need all that much coaxing. He may just be looking for an excuse to do so. “Congress made me do it!”
The high profile that Washington accorded Tsai’s trip also indicates how comfortable the administration is with her firm, but low-key, approach to cross-Strait relations, and how much they trust her not to get the US into any predicaments. Tsai Ing-wen is clearly not Chen Shui-bian, even though the latter was the last Taiwan president to give a formal address on US soil when he spoke in New York 15 years ago.
Tsai seems pretty close to where Washington is on cross-Strait relations. That is, no formal declaration of independence, but also not bowing to Beijing’s intimidation and harassment. A true status quo as it were.
At the same time, Taiwan is a curious Trump-case, as three months after taking Tsai’s congratulatory call, he then unfortunately read out the US One-China policy for Xi Jinping on the phone as if to atone for his having spoken to Tsai. Then, Xi was at Mar a Lago (a destination that should be reserved exclusively for US allies like Japan’s Shinzo Abe). Trump has also been feted and flattered like a king in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Whether it is because of North Korea, trade, or whatever else, something clicked for Trump on Taiwan a year or so ago and US-Taiwan relations have only gone from strong to stronger ever since. Not only did he sign the TTA, but he has also approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, permitted Americans suppliers to market submarine technology to Taiwan, and allowed two high-profile State Department officials to visit the island.
As Trump has indirectly empowered Beijing by leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and by calling off August military exercises with South Korea after meeting Kim Jong-un in June (which greatly unnerved Taipei stalwart Tokyo most), he is for some reason strongly moving in the different direction on Taiwan.
Let’s hope President Trump is not building up Taiwan only to leverage it in talks with Beijing over North Korea or trade. But with longtime Taiwan backers like John Bolton and Randy Shriver in senior administration roles, there is enough reason to hope and think that something real is going on here. Whatever Trump’s true intentions, Taiwan and its supporters should ride this wave for as long as it lasts.
Washington is seemingly in unchartered waters in America’s One-China policy era with a US president who takes pride in going against norms, and a PRC president who is pushing harder and harder on America’s own core interests. As Beijing continues to push, Washington could be on the verge of something dramatic in US-Taiwan relations. Let’s hope Tsai’s August 2018 landmark visits are just the start.
Little by little, these transits are becoming more like how a real Taiwan presidential visit can and should look. But next time, Tsai should be allowed to visit Washington and Trump should meet her. Or, meet her wherever she is. Seattle? New York? At the very least, he can call her when she is in the country. Or, he can meet her in whichever official country Taipei ally she’s visiting. Guatemala? Saint Lucia? Wherever works.
The main point: Tsai Ing-wen’s successful US transits speak to President Trump’s support of Taiwan. Her next visits could and should be even bigger, breaking more conventions.