Amidst concerns that the Kuomintang’s (KMT, 國民黨) image and connections in the United States have both suffered in recent years—especially as the administration of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨)-affiliated President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has garnered widespread acclaim in the international community—the KMT party leadership officially announced in late November 2021 that they would be opening a new representative office in Washington DC. (An earlier representative office maintained by the party was closed in 2008.) The party’s official announcement stated that the KMT’s liaison office would “…work actively and earnestly in Washington […] to steadfastly defend the Republic of China, safeguard Taiwan, [and] sincerely and extensively communicate to all of our good friends in America the policy positions of sincere Taiwan-US relations.” This initiative, led by KMT International Department (國民黨國際事務部) former Vice Director Eric Huang (黃裕鈞), saw the completion of its first initial step in late January, with the reported selection of a property on Pennsylvania Avenue as the site for the new office.
The KMT’s Image Problem in the United States
The re-establishment of the KMT liaison office is a response to the party leadership’s apparent realization that the organization’s image in Washington DC has suffered in recent years. There are now widespread perceptions within the US Taiwan-watching community that the KMT’s electoral base and pro-unification wing are uncomfortably friendly towards Beijing; and that the media infrastructure that supports the party frequently serves as a conduit for propaganda orchestrated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This has been further reinforced by the KMT’s noisy opposition to the import of US pork products containing ractopamine, a factor that has been a primary sticking point in US-Taiwan trade negotiations.
Allegations of anti-American bias on the part of the KMT have also flared up as a periodic controversy in Taiwan’s domestic politics. For example, in January 2021, just prior to the turnover between US presidential administrations, a potential visit to Taiwan by then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft was reportedly under consideration. This prompted a public comment by KMT legislator Fei Hong-tai (費鴻泰) that Craft would be an unwelcome “obnoxious guest” (惡客). This in turn drew criticism from the DPP that the KMT was anti-American—resulting in a denial by KMT spokesperson Angel Hung (洪于茜) of anti-American animus within the party, and as well as an assertion that the KMT was interested in improving ties with the United States. (The immediate object of the controversy was rendered moot when Craft’s proposed trip was cancelled amid the flurry of issues surrounding the presidential transition.)
Since his election to party leadership in September 2021, KMT Chairman Chu Li-lun (Eric Chu, 朱立倫) has attempted to stake out a policy of simultaneously pursuing friendlier relations with both Beijing and Washington. Upon assuming the chairmanship, Chu received congratulations from Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 共產黨) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) and PRC state media, and proclaimed his intentions to restart dialogues with the PRC. Chu also sparked controversy with a response letter to Xi that was criticized for being overly deferential in tone. Chu, along with KMT Deputy Chairman Hsia Li-yan (夏立言), further participated in the “13th Straits Forum” (第十三屆海峽論壇), a mid-December event in Xiamen organized by the CCP united front bureaucracy.
The KMT’s New Outreach to Washington on Security Policy
However, steps towards boosting the party’s sagging image in America also began to take shape early in Chu’s tenure. In October, Dr. Dennis Lu-cheng Weng, a political science professor at Sam Houston State University, appeared as a KMT representative at the “2021 United States-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference” hosted by the US-Taiwan Business Council. Dr. Weng presented a keynote address in which he laid out some of the KMT’s key points in terms of national security messaging to an American audience. Specifically, Dr. Weng asserted that “The primary focus of our national defense and force building should be aimed at ‘preventing our adversary from making a decision to wage war against Taiwan’,” while also building up Taiwan’s defense capabilities. The speech offered support for the “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC, 整體防衛構想), a set of ideas that have been the focus of intense debate regarding Taiwan’s defense posture. Dr. Weng also indicated that the KMT had created an “International Affairs Working Group” (國際事務工作小組) tasked with formulating “national security strategy guidelines” that would be made available later in 2022.
This was followed by a more public event earlier this month, when KMT representatives spoke at a February 9 online discussion event hosted by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. Titled “Cross-Strait and US-Taiwan Relations from the Kuomintang Point of View,” the event featured discussion by Dr. Alexander Huang (黃介正), a professor at Tamkang University and the director of the KMT’s International Affairs Department; and Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), a KMT legislator and the party’s former chairman in 2020-2021. (Eric Huang [黃裕鈞], the director of the KMT’s new representative office, was also scheduled to participate, but experienced connectivity problems during most of the event.)
Dr. Huang opened with comments that the KMT’s values and interests “sided with [the international] democratic community,” and stressed the KMT’s long history of ties with the United States. Much of his presentation focused on the national security threat to Taiwan, noting that the PRC was taking advantage of its growing power to “move more and more beyond its borderlines,” and that it was “crucial for not only Taiwan but the region to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” To achieve this, Dr. Huang asserted that Taiwan should “mitigate threat and prevent crisis” by resuming official dialogues with the PRC, while also taking the necessary steps to boost Taiwan’s defense capabilities through reorganization and training, the integration of new weapons systems, and the implementation of the Overall Defense Concept.
Making an implicit criticism of the current DPP administration, Dr. Huang stated that “In the past 6 years, we see that Taiwan is moving toward [a] more and more confrontational approach vis-à-vis mainland China without crisis prevention mechanism[s], without official communication,” and advocated government-to-government dialogue that would “allow room for cooperation.” By contrast, he defended KMT adherence to the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識) as a useful tool for re-opening cross-Strait dialogue without surrendering Republic of China (ROC) sovereignty. He stated that the KMT would seek “a better status quo” by maintaining opposition to independence and other steps that might antagonize Beijing—while also refusing to accept a Beijing-defined “one China.”
In terms of relations with the United States, Dr. Huang stated that the creation of the new representative office was an expression of goodwill to the Washington policy community, and that it would plan and host a series of travel delegations in policy areas to include supply chain and high-tech issues, trade and economic matters, and a US visit by KMT Chairman Chu once pandemic restrictions are relaxed. He also noted that his own department in the KMT would be developing a “defense dialogue group,” consisting of six to eight policymakers and senior retired military officials, in order to re-engage with the Pentagon and conduct “better, quieter” exchanges on defense issues.
Former KMT Chairman Chiang’s Comments on Cross-Strait Relations
At the same event, former KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang presented a fundamentally optimistic view that “Washington-Beijing relations are moving towards stability” after the Xi-Biden talks held in November 2021, and that there would be “steadier controlled competition” in which “both sides will establish guidelines in order to prevent competition from descending into conflict.” By contrast, he stated that cross-Strait relations represented a “latent fuse that may initiate conflict.” For this, he placed blame on the Tsai Administration for “fail[ing] to take into account [the] political realities” of Taiwan’s position vis-à-vis the PRC. Citing President Tsai’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, he stated that the DPP “approaches the cross-strait question only from the international level,” and that the “DPP’s national security strategy is playing [the] democracy vs. authoritarian[ism] card, relying on the democratic world to rescue Taiwan.”
By way of contrast, Mr. Chiang stated that the KMT would be a “responsible friend” to the United States, while also focusing on cross-Strait dialogue to improve relations between the ROC and the PRC. In this, he asserted that the KMT would not defer to Beijing’s authority: “[O]ur priority remains the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of China […] we are unequivocally opposed to Beijing’s so-called ‘One Country Two Systems’” (一國兩制) framework. He also defended the “1992 Consensus”—asserting, without clear explanation, that “the ‘92 Consensus has been destroyed on purpose by our political competitors”—and stated that it provided Taiwan with its own version of “strategic ambiguity” in dealing with the mainland.
More than any other theme, Mr. Chiang repeatedly stressed the importance of “people-to-people connections” as a means to build more positive cross-Strait relations. He stated that “people-to-people connection[s] […] should be the very fundamental thinking for both sides,” and asserted the concept of “people as priority” (民本思想) in traditional Chinese thought as a guideline for relations across the Strait.  This effort to “alleviate cross-Strait tensions at [the] people-to-people levels,” alongside party-to-party dialogue between the KMT and CCP, would allow the two sides to “plot a course towards long-lasting peace.”
The KMT leadership clearly recognizes that the party’s international reputation has declined in recent years, alongside its domestic electoral prospects. The party is currently undertaking steps to repair some of this damage among Washington policy circles—with the establishment of a new representative office, as well as public policy discussions by senior party representatives, providing the most prominent examples of this renewed outreach. However, the party continues to face fundamental quandaries in terms of its messaging to both domestic and international audiences.
The first and most fundamental of these is the questionable utility of cross-Strait dialogue with a CCP leadership intent on denying Taiwan’s government and political institutions any legitimacy outside the scope of the CCP united front system and the rigid “One Country, Two Systems” concept (which enjoys negligible support in Taiwan). The second of these is the limited space for the sort of “strategic ambiguity” advocated by former KMT Chairman Chiang: the “1992 Consensus” formally maintained by both the KMT and the CCP (albeit with arguably unbridgeable interpretations) appears to be increasingly moribund and unworkable as a practical framework for negotiations. Embracing Beijing’s preconditions for dialogue would force the KMT—or any other political party in Taiwan, for that matter—to embrace positions deeply unpopular with Taiwan’s electorate as a whole. In this light, hopes that “people-to-people” exchanges will bridge this divide seem naïve, at best. The KMT is undoubtedly taking more productive efforts to engage with a Washington audience; but as long as the underlying dynamics of both cross-Strait relations and the party’s domestic policies remain fundamentally unchanged, a shift in messaging alone is likely to have limited value.
The main point: Representatives of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang, are engaged in an active outreach effort to improve the party’s image and contacts among the Washington policy community, as seen most clearly in the creation of a new liaison office for the party in Washington, DC. However, the underlying dynamics affecting both the party’s electoral prospects and its Washington connections remain unchanged, and will present challenges to the KMT’s efforts to boost its international image.
 In this, Chiang’s comments are strikingly evocative of the focus on “people-to-people exchanges” (民間交流) advanced by the PRC united front system; as well as the “people as the foundation” (以人為本) slogan evoked in Chinese Communist Party propaganda under Xi Jinping.