Last week, Taiwan’s vice president-elect, William Lai (賴清德), visited the United States, meeting with lawmakers and officials in Washington and attending the National Prayer Breakfast, an event organized by a non-profit organization and attended by senior US officials, including the president. Formerly Taiwan’s premier, Lai is currently a private citizen and thus his trip was, technically, fully consistent with past practices. Nonetheless, the visit has had its critics. For instance, a prominent scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Michael Swaine, tweeted out his concerns:
This is a particularly stupid provocation of Beijing. Lai is a very committed proponent of Taidu [Taiwan independence]… Why engage in seeing where [China’s] red line lies on this sensitive issue? It makes no sense other than to insult Beijing.
Swaine’s concerns are misplaced and, arguably, his criticism is exactly backward. As the vice president-elect, Lai’s pro-independence leanings should encourage US leaders to engage with him—not least to better understand his views and positions. Moreover, Beijing’s claim to a veto over whom Washington may welcome to the United States makes it all the more important that US leaders meet with whomever they see fit, regardless of Chinese objections. Indeed, these are two of the three reasons that Lai’s trip is appropriate and important.
First, coming at a time when a viral outbreak has Taiwan feeling the dangerous effects of China’s years-long pressure campaign, welcoming the vice president-elect to Washington has enormous symbolic importance. For citizens of Taiwan, the signs of its international isolation have been plain to see in recent days. The World Health Organization (WHO), which has not welcomed Taipei’s representatives into emergency meetings, has labeled Taiwan a high-risk area despite only a handful of coronavirus infections. Why? Because the organization considers the island to be part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Two weeks ago, ICAO’s twitter account blocked numerous users—including journalists, congressional staffers, and think tank analysts (this writer among them)—for tweeting about Taiwan’s exclusion from the organization.
It matters immensely, then, that the highest ranking official-in-waiting to visit Washington in decades was met with open arms. It matters that Washington did not grant Beijing a say regarding whom it permits entry to the United States. Figuratively and literally, Lai’s interlocutors conveyed to the people of Taiwan that they do not stand alone—a message heard loud and clear in Beijing as well.
Second, Lai’s visit presented an opportunity for the Tsai administration to pass messages to the Trump administration, and vice versa, at a high level. Observations, concerns, and requests conveyed via Lai are likely to be taken more seriously, and perhaps acted upon more quickly, than if they were conveyed via Taiwan’s diplomatic staff in Washington. In his various meetings, Lai only had time to make a limited number of points. His hosts can be sure that those points were carefully selected and accurately reflect the Tsai administration’s priorities. American clarity on those priorities is useful as Tsai gets ready to begin her second term.
Third, it is precisely because of Lai’s past comments regarding independence that it is important for US leaders to meet with him. Fairly or not, pro-independence politicians make Washington nervous. But Lai will be Taiwan’s vice president come May and may well have a political future beyond Tsai’s second term; the United States cannot simply ignore him. Rather, it behooves American lawmakers and officials to seek a greater understanding of Lai’s views on independence and his preferred approach to managing ties with the People’s Republic. During her 2016 presidential campaign, Tsai worked hard to convince official Washington that she would be a responsible steward of cross-Strait relations. It makes sense for Lai to do so as well, to reassure skeptics concerned that he may be willing to play with fire in the Strait, and to build relationships with potential future partners within the executive and legislative branches.
William Lai understandably drew all of the attention during his visit last week, but he did not travel alone. It was notable that Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) accompanied him. Hsiao, who last month lost her bid for reelection to the Legislative Yuan, has served a total of 14 years (divided between two stints) in the legislature. She has educational and professional experience in the United States, served as an adviser to President Chen Shui-bian in the early 2000s and, during the first Ma Ying-jeou term, ran the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) international affairs department.
Now, Hsiao is out of a job. But her visit to Washington suggests that may not be the case for long. A leader on foreign policy issues within the DPP and a known quantity in Washington, it would not be at all surprising for Tsai to tap Hsiao for a senior role within her administration. This is, of course, speculation, but it is, perhaps, the best explanation for Hsiao’s visit. A private citizen at the moment, there was no reason for the Trump administration to justify limiting her travels in the United States or her engagement with officials. As with vice president-elect Lai, she had an opportunity last week to deepen relationships and forge new ones with American leaders that have been supportive of US-Taiwan relations and with whom she may need to work, if only indirectly, should she join the Tsai administration in a formal capacity.
Pick up the Phone
Given Lai’s role as Taiwan’s next vice president and Hsiao’s potential high-level job during Tsai’s second term, this may be the most significant visit by two jobless, private Taiwanese citizens to the United States in quite some time. The question, of course, is what comes next. Ideally, this unofficial visit will be followed by more official high-level contacts.
Importantly, there is, at the present moment, a pressing need for such contact. According to tweets from Senator Cory Gardner and Senator Marco Rubio’s press office, Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and ICAO was one topic of conversation during their meetings with Lai and Hsiao. Given the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, it is not at all surprising that this is a priority for Taipei. (As I argued previously for the Global Taiwan Brief, it should be a priority for the United States as well.)
There may not be a short-term solution to this problem, but with Beijing prioritizing its political interests vis-à-vis Taipei over human lives, now would be a good time for National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to call David Lee, his counterpart in Taiwan, to consult on efforts to contain the novel coronavirus. In particular, O’Brien should ask if Washington can take steps to speed up the sharing of WHO information, if there are ways the United States and Taiwan could be more closely coordinating, and if there is anything the United States can do to provide assistance to Taiwan citizens stuck in areas of the PRC under lockdown.
An O’Brien call to Taipei would also give Lee an opportunity to share his assessment of China’s overall approach to Taiwan in the lead-up to and aftermath of Tsai’s second inauguration. Will Beijing escalate its years-long pressure campaign, ease it, or stick to its current path? How does Lee assess China’s Taiwan policy might shift in the event of a prolonged coronavirus outbreak in the PRC? And how does Lee assess the potential effects of the virus on Chinese domestic politics? Answers to these questions should assist Washington as it prepares for a variety of possible contingencies in Asia.
An Envoy for the Inauguration?
Finally, Lee might take the opportunity to invite the Trump administration to send a representative to Tsai’s inauguration on May 20, 2020. In 2018, the US Congress passed and President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, encouraging the administration to send senior administration officials and military officers to Taiwan for meetings with counterparts. The administration passed up a prime opportunity to do so last summer, when the new American Institute in Taiwan office opened.
A presidential inauguration is an even better opportunity. In an ideal world, the president would dispatch his secretary of state or national security adviser to represent him at the event. Although that cannot be ruled out, it seems unlikely, as typical concerns over Chinese reactions would likely dissuade such a move.
In light of current events, however, a less traditional representative might be appropriate. In particular, the secretary of health and human services or, barring that, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration or the director of the Centers for Disease Control, would be a fitting choice. Such an envoy would, given rank, convey the importance the Trump administration places on the relationship with Taipei and, given role, convey appreciation for the seriousness of the public health challenge facing Taiwan (should it not yet be resolved).
With campaign season well underway in the United States and with forthcoming personnel changes in Tsai’s second term, there is some uncertainty as to what might be in store for US-Taiwan relations this year. Hopefully, last week’s visit from William Lai and Hsiao Bi-khim dispelled some of that uncertainty and paved the way for more substantial official contacts in the months ahead.
The main point: William Lai and Hsiao Bi-khim’s visit to the United States was appropriate and valuable to both Washington and Taipei.