US leaves Taiwan wanting more with latest official visit off the menu

Lawrence Chung
·3-min read

The fourth course of a feast of high-ranking US official visits to the self-ruled island of Taiwan has been ruled off the menu, with the indefinite postponement of US environmental chief Andrew Wheeler’s planned visit for three days in early December.

He would have been the fourth senior Washington official to travel to Taipei in as many months, as the Trump administration has stepped up its ties with the island, which Beijing regards as part of its territory, to be returned by force if necessary.

Speaking on Monday in anticipation of Wheeler’s arrival, Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang said the visits represented an ever-closer relationship between Taipei and Washington. “It is like a full banquet with one new dish coming after another.”

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The following day, Su’s dinner plans were disrupted when US Environmental Protection Agency spokesman James Hewitt said Wheeler’s visit had been postponed “due to pressing priorities at home”. The announcement followed a report in The New York Times last week which put the cost of the trip at US$45,000.

The report questioned the justification for the visit – during a government transition and with Wheeler soon to leave office – as well as the cost to taxpayers which included US$25,000 in chartered flights, according to The Times.

Hewitt criticised the premature exposure of Wheeler’s planned visit to Taiwan, saying “it is disturbing that a government official would leak deliberative schedules … that could jeopardise both international diplomacy and personal security, and we are referring the matter to the inspector general.”

He also said there was no plan for Wheeler to make separate trips to Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic in January, as reported by The Times.

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu said there was no relation between the postponement and the hush-hush visit by an unidentified US official – believed to be Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, director of intelligence at Indo-Pacific Command – who arrived on Sunday for a three-day stay.

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Both Washington and Taipei have been tight-lipped about the visit but neither denied reports that it was Studeman. The unannounced trip prompted an angry protest from Beijing, with China’s foreign ministry reiterating its opposition to any form of exchange between the US and Taiwanese officials or military.

“The Chinese side will, according to how the situation develops, make a legitimate and necessary response,” spokesman Zhao Lijian said, without elaborating.

Beijing reacted with similar fury to visits to Taipei by US health secretary Alex Azar in August and undersecretary of state Keith Krach in September, each time sending fighter jets across the Taiwan Strait close to the island.

The mainland has been ramping up the pressure on Taiwan, staging war games close to the island and sending military planes into its air defence identification zone – with more than 1,760 sorties so far this year.

On Wednesday, Taiwanese Presidential Office spokesman Xavier Cheng expressed regret over the postponement of Wheeler’s visit, and said Taipei respected the EPA administrator’s decision.

“But Taiwan and the US will continue to deepen their long-time cooperation in environmental protection and it remains a goal for our two sides to seek to expand their exchanges in all levels and areas,” he said.

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