In the latest political victory for Taipei and a new slight for Beijing, the United States announced Wednesday that it would send a senior State Department official to attend the funeral of former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui, known as the island’s “father of democracy”.
The visit by undersecretary of state Keith Krach is sure to rankle China, which considers the self-governed island a renegade province to be reunified by force if necessary.
President Donald Trump began his administration in January 2017 with a call to his Taiwanese counterpart, Tsai Ing-wen. Since then, Taipei has hosted its most senior US cabinet member since 1979, signed seven major arms deals worth US$13.3 billion, granted Tsai a 12-day “stopover” in the US and benefited from several new US laws and partnership agreements.
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“The United States honours President Lee’s legacy by continuing our strong bonds with Taiwan and its vibrant democracy through shared political and economic values,” the State Department said on Wednesday when announcing Krach’s trip.
The memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Krach would arrive in Taipei on Thursday.
The choice of Krach, responsible for economic affairs at the State Department, is hardly an accident or a surprise. Last month, David Stilwell, the agency’s point person on East Asia, announced a new US-Taiwan economic dialogue, later noting that Krach would lead the US team. And reports of an imminent Krach visit have seeped into the media.
This has drawn the expected response from Beijing, increasingly concerned that its cross-Strait policy of keeping Taiwan in its lane is weakening. The US should “stop all forms of official exchanges with Taiwan so as to avoid serious damage to China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday in Beijing.
Taiwan’s ultimate goal is to see the dialogue morph into a free-trade agreement with the US, more closely binding the two economies.
“It remains to be seen if anything can be started on that front,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “Of course this new dialogue is important, but what Taiwan wants is an actual agreement.”
But analysts note that much of the momentum for closer trade relations – and for calls on Taiwan to shift its technology supply chains out of China – have come from the State Department and other administration officials, not the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), which would need to lead any serious negotiations.
Lee’s memorial service is incredibly symbolic
Sean King, former US Commerce Department official
Robert Lighthizer, that agency’s leader, has spent much of his tenure hammering out a phase one trade deal with China, and its dissolution by Beijing should economic ties with Taiwan take off could undercut his legacy, analysts said.
Beijing, which considers Taiwan an “existential” issue, has sought for decades to deny the island military weaponry, allies or international recognition.
“We still have USTR tiptoeing around Beijing’s objections to a free-trade agreement,” said Walter Lohman, Asian studies director at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “But it’s a very quick start to something only announced two weeks ago.”
So far, few details have been released on the visit, but Lohman said the two sides are likely to talk about closer economic cooperation, supply chain security and other issues in broad terms, with details likely to be hammered out later by technocrats.
If talks move forward on a free-trade agreement, the momentum would likely remain even if Democrat nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency, he added.
“I think a Biden administration would continue them,” said Lohman, a former Senate staffer. “There will be some pushing and pulling early in the administration like there always is. Congress will weigh in. But ultimately the friends of Taiwan will win.”
That said, a number of thorny issues could frustrate any bigger agreement, analysts add. Taiwan has a large and growing trade surplus with the United States. It has often protected its markets from US exports, which has caused irritation on Capitol Hill. That was eased somewhat by an agreement last month to allow US beef and pork into Taiwan, imports that had been blocked since 2006. And some critics fault the island for not doing enough to bolster its own defence even as it calls for more American arms and assistance.
“The primary impediments have been the lack of political will and bandwidth,” said Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute. “There will likely be pressure on the administration to aim for a partial trade deal or economic partnership agreement with Taiwan as an interim step.”
Nearly as irksome to China as the visit of a senior US official is the occasion for the visit, say analysts.
Lee, who died in late July at 97, was the island’s first Taiwan-born president, credited with ensuring the end of autocratic rule in favour of vibrant pluralism. And he relished defying China and Beijing’s efforts to contain the island’s efforts at greater global recognition, seen in a provocative commencement speech he gave at Cornell University in 2001.
“Lee’s memorial service is incredibly symbolic,” said Sean King, senior vice-president with the Park Strategies consultancy and a former US Commerce Department official. “He helped Taiwan realise that it’s more or less just Taiwan. And as Lee was the island’s first democratically elected leader, he was a true hero for his own people.”
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