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The Politics of the Upgrade of the American Institute in Taipei

The Politics of the Upgrade of the American Institute in Taipei
The US has spent $250m on upgrading the so-called ‘American Institute’ (AIT) which serves many of the functions of an American embassy in Taipei, Taiwan. China is annoyed at this, and the new building is to be opened on June 12th, the same day as the summit between President Trump and N. Korean leader Kim Jong-un. What is America signaling?

Joining the program to discuss these issues are Dr Huang Kwei-Bo, the Vice Dean at the College of International Affairs, National Chengchi University in Taipei, and Bryce Swerhun, a researcher at the City University in Hong Kong.

Dr Huang starts the program by describing the actual function of the AIT. He says that it is the de facto US embassy in Taiwan, in the context of an absence of official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan by America, which is a result of agreements between China and the US. The center is staffed by US diplomats, and some local guards are hired to protect the property. "They have different titles but we see them as THE official representatives from the United States in Taiwan. The Americans enjoy diplomatic privileges, "we try to treat them as one of our diplomatic allies in Taiwan. They are very welcome in Taiwan."

Bryce then points put that upgrading the AIT comes at a particularly sensitive time in Mainland China-Taiwan relations. "The Chinese see the present government in Taiwan being particular vocal in its desire for independence. We have just seen the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident on June the 4th, and the Taiwanese leader made a very bold statement about the importance of moving towards democracy in mainland China….This statement was released on Facebook which is a platform which is restricted in China….This is all occurring at a time when relations are already very frosty between the mainland and Taiwan."

Dr Huang plays down the significance of the 12th of June date for the opening of the new AIT, saying that the date was decided on a long time ago. "The current AIT building has been there for maybe 30 years, and the US started the process of finding a new location about 10 years ago. The only controversial question is whether the US will send marines to guard the building in Taipei City, but some people expect that since there is a new building and relations between Taiwan and the US are warming, the Trump administration should be able to send marine guards, but the possibility of this happening is getting smaller and smaller." The presence of US marines in Taiwan would go against the spirit of the communiques between China and US whereby China has stipulated that the US should not recognize two Chinas, and thus should not have a separate embassy in Taiwan.

Bryce compares the opening of the new AIT with the repositioning of the US embassy in Jerusalem. "Diplomacy depends on a certain amount of convention and understanding; not just formal laws and those sorts of agreements. So the idea of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is an old idea but it was never acted on, it was a historic compromise. But we don't really see with this current [US] administration an appetite to concur with convention or precedence….there was an agreement, convention that the AIT would not have armed marine guards, it seems that every opportunity the US administration has to open up a new front for negotiation, they have been willing to take it….So far there has been no indication that the Trump administration will send cabinet level officials, but it will be another opportunity to look for signaling that breaks away for precedence."

Dr Huang says that the general mood towards the opening of the new building is generally positive, explaining that Taiwanese see themselves as living in a sovereign country, and wish to enjoy better ties with the US. If the US was to send a high ranking official to the opening of AIT, he says, "That would be some kind of belated justice for Taiwan….However, some people in Taiwan feel a bit worried about such a signal by Washington because sending a high level official to Taipei could mean greater support of the Trump administration for Taiwan. But the greater Trump's support is for Taiwan, the more likely it is that China is going to undertake some more assertive actions against Taiwan, to block Taiwan's international space, or to block Taiwan in cross border trade negotiations…"

Host John Harrison points out that even if the date for the opening was determined some time ago, the date for the summit was fixed quite recently. Bryce comments: "Taiwan might be small fry for the US, but for China, this is the whole game. China is very committed to their ideological standpoint on Taiwan. The Trump administration is mostly concerned with issues relating to the economy and trade; putting America first, whereas China's policies are more political than economic….We also see that the US administration prefers to negotiate on a state by state basis. It will be interesting to see if the US will try to make one deal with China and another with Taiwan, that will be very difficult for them to do but seems to be the kind of strategy that the Americans would prefer."

Dr Huang points out that "Taiwan has been placed in a very awkward position, where on the one hand Taiwan has been receiving a great deal of US support, not only from the administration but from congress as well. But there is a possibility that Taiwan will be seen as a bargaining chip between the US and China….In terms of bargaining power with the US, Taipei's power is much weaker than it was before. In the past Taipei could use its good relationship with Washington to bargain with Beijing and vice versus….But nowadays, Taipei can only be a good friend of Washington, and Beijing sees Taiwan as an actor that is moving towards independence. Beijing cannot tolerate that. So, Beijing won't be friendly towards Taipei whilst Washington knows about Taipei's weakness — its bad relations with Beijing. So Washington can theoretically act more decisively in Taipei because Taipei cannot resist."

Bryce also points out that Taiwan is still very dependent on the US for arms procurement, and this is something that will now be negotiated between the US and Chinese governments, and the Taiwanese will have very little say in the matter.

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