The Significance of Taiwan’s Representative Office on the Small Island of Guam

The Significance of Taiwan’s Representative Office on the Small Island of Guam

The Significance of Taiwan’s Representative Office on the Small Island of Guam

Taiwan is re-establishing a representative office in the US territory of Guam, but this seemingly sudden reversal is spurring speculation of a military motive. More significantly, Taiwan’s small step epitomizes a strategic approach. This step is not controversial for US policy. Stepping in sync with the United States and other democratic countries, Taiwan is preserving its presence and promoting partnerships in a free and open Indo-Pacific. Taipei is stepping up in the global strategic competition against the threats of the Communist Party of China (CPC). [1] As the US National Security Advisor warns, the CPC’s comprehensive challenges cover control over thought even outside of China. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s move to open again that office (like a consulate) raises issues about how to enhance bilateral military ties.

Preserving Presence and Promoting Partnerships

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) have decided to re-open the Republic of China (Taiwan)’s representative office in Guam. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) closed the office in August 2017 under the previous minister (David Lee, 李大維). In its announcement (in English and Chinese) on July 3 of this year, MOFA stated that the office “will facilitate economic and trade cooperation and exchanges between Taiwan and the greater western Pacific region, deepen Taiwan’s relations with its Pacific allies, and increase multilateral exchanges.” MOFA also cited the promotion of Taiwanese investments in Guam, tourism between Guam and Taiwan, medical cooperation, and consular assistance for Taiwanese in Guam. (Taiwan sent about 20,000 visitors a year, the third largest group of foreign tourists.) Moreover, in 2017 and 2018, Guam’s Governor Eddie Calvo visited Taipei and urged Tsai to restore the office.

Significantly, MOFA referred to “strategic shifts” in the Pacific for re-opening the office.

However, the Trump administration set forth the US strategy for the free and open Indo-Pacific in November 2017. Guam’s strategic significance also is not new. The US military long has valued Guam as the western-most US territory and strategic site for forward deployments in the western Pacific. Guam has two important military bases: Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base. Since 2000, the US military has engaged in a moderate buildup of forces on Guam. With concerns about North Korea and China, the defense buildup has supported US deterrence and potential assistance to allies and partners. In 2012, the Obama Administration issued a Defense Strategic Guidance for the strategic “rebalance” of priorities to the Asia-Pacific, which further raised Guam’s importance as a “strategic hub.” [2]

Furthermore, strong ties between Guam and Taiwan have a long record, including under the many years of attention by Guam’s Delegate to Congress, Madeleine Bordallo.

In short, Taiwan is restoring the office to regain its previous presence and promote partnerships. The timing is not related to any new strategic significance of Guam or military-to-military (mil-to-mil) ties on Guam, despite speculation of a military motive.

After the small office closed, there were diplomatic developments. The ROC (Taiwan)’s embassy in Palau had to take over the duties in Guam as well as the nearby Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). In November 2017, President Tsai enjoyed US stop-overs in Hawaii and later Guam on her way to and from visits to Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands. She promised Taiwanese business leaders in Guam to reconsider the closing. Also, Tsai has been very concerned about consolidating Taiwan’s ties to countries in the Pacific, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) coerced or compelled countries to switch diplomatic recognitions from the ROC to the PRC. In 2019, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched recognitions, despite an intense US campaign led by the National Security Council to sustain stability.

TECO’s Function as Consulate

The US-Taiwan partnership is non-diplomatic—yet not “unofficial”—under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), P.L. 96-8. Thus, the office will be called a Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), although it will function like a consulate. After this TECO re-opens, Taiwan will have 13 US offices in Washington, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, Chicago, Honolulu, Denver, Miami, and Guam.

Along with Taiwan’s de facto embassy called the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington, the TECOs in other US cities serve functions for official as well as grassroots engagement. Similarly, the United States set up the American Institute in Taiwan in Taipei (AIT/Taipei) to continue operations after the embassy closed. Later, an AIT Branch opened in a southern city as AIT/Kaohsiung, functioning as the de facto consulate under AIT/Taipei whose director acts as a Chief of Mission. However, different from the US State Department’s practice, TECOs operate more under MOFA’s direct authority than under TECRO’s direction. Indeed, some directors of TECOs already have served as ambassadors at ROC embassies.

Strategic Significance

Aligned with Washington, Taipei preserves its presence in the Pacific to play a part in strategic competition against the CPC regime. Its comprehensive challenges cover diplomatic, information, military, economic, and legal threats.

In May, the White House issued the US strategy to deal with the PRC. The document declared that “the United States is working in concert with mutually aligned visions and approaches such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific vision, India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region policy, Australia’s Indo-Pacific concept, the Republic of Korea’s New Southern Policy, and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy.”

Then, in June, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien warned that the CPC’s challenges involve ideology and ideas. The CPC schemes to control thought even outside of the PRC.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reiterated that the National Defense Strategy recognizes great power competition and focuses on China as the pacing threat. Esper emphasized efforts to strengthen allies and build partners.

Thus, the TECO in Guam (like Taiwan’s other offices around the world) could counter the CPC’s disinformation and convey strategic communication. The office could contribute in unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral ways for economic and security interests.

Issues in Mil-to-Mil Engagement

Still, the seemingly sudden reversal of the office’s closing is spurring spurious speculation that the timing is due to new mil-to-mil engagement in Guam. Such speculation entails even an assumption about military officers at TECOs in Guam and Honolulu working closely together, although that would actually be impractical. On July 9, MOFA disputed the speculation, noting that “military cooperation is not one of our country’s considerations” to re-open the TECO in August or September.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) does not have military training in Guam. MND has not assigned any past or future military liaison officers (functioning as military attaches) to the TECO in Guam. Taiwan’s offices in the United States with military liaison officers are in Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington. High-level and extensive visits justify the assignments at those offices, but not in Guam.

Nonetheless, there are issues. Should restoring TECO in Guam involve implications about defense? How should Taiwan decide in debating about whether to post military attachés to that office? Given incremental improvements in bilateral ties under the Trump Administration, officials and observers often opine that mil-to-mil engagement should expand. In the past, Taiwan asked to sail naval ships and fly military aircraft (such as C-130 planes) to Guam for training missions. Moreover, some in Congress (such as Representative Mike Gallagher, who introduced the Taiwan Defense Act in the House on July 1) argue for clarity rather than ambiguity in US support for Taiwan’s defense. US training with Taiwan’s military could expand to Guam. Singapore, whose F-16 pilots train with Taiwan’s F-16 pilots at Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base, signed an agreement in December 2019 for training of fighter pilots in Guam. [3]

However, Taiwan’s F-16 fighter pilots will still be able to train in Arizona. Also, MND is shifting to asymmetric warfare under the Overall Defense Concept, as the Pentagon urges its implementation. Furthermore, Taiwan does not need an expeditionary force in defense of its homeland. The Pentagon also prefers more efficacy than symbolism in US support for Taiwan’s deterrence, readiness, and survivability, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Heino Klinck noted at a GTI event in May. Of critical concern, Taiwan has a limited defense budget (USD $11.4 billion in 2020), accounting for only 1.9 percent of GDP. According to remarks in June by Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey, the United States expects allies and partners to invest appropriately in their own defense.

Significantly, the more urgent and realistic issue is whether to allow Taiwan at the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) multinational maritime exercise this August centering at Hawaii. The US Navy has not invited Taiwan to send participants. Nevertheless, RIMPAC 2020 should include military observers from Taiwan, especially since the Trump Administration ended invitations to the PRC’s navy. [4]

The main point: Taiwan’s re-opening of a small office in Guam still epitomizes a strategic step, even if not involving military cooperation. More immediately, military observers from Taiwan should be welcomed at the upcoming RIMPAC.

[1] This author precisely translates “中国共产党” as the “Communist Party of China (CPC)” (which the CPC also officially uses) and avoids ambiguous association of the CPC with “Chinese” culture or people.

[2] Shirley Kan, “Guam: U.S. Defense Deployments,” CRS Report, updated January 5, 2015.

[3] Shirley Kan, “Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990,” CRS Report, updated January 5, 2015.

[4] Shirley Kan, “Rescind China’s Invitation to Join RIMPAC,” PacNet #35, April 15, 2016.