Taiwan’s new top diplomat for the Southeast U.S. doesn’t relish the deterioration in U.S.-China relations, but that doesn’t mean his government isn’t seeking to make the most of it.
Elliot Yi-lung Wang arrived recently in Atlanta to take up his post as the director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, a de facto consulate, just as the U.S. closed the Chinese Consulate General in Houston for alleged spying and technology theft.
The move came after a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that outlined a more confrontational approach from the U.S. toward what the Trump administration sees as a “new tyranny” being unleashed globally by the Communist Party of China.
On top of their trade war, the U.S. and China are at loggerheads over China’s internment of Muslim Uighurs in camps, the upending of Hong Kong’s autonomy by a new national security law and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic that originated in China.
Mr. Pompeo’s “crucial speech” at the Nixon Presidential Library shows a new trajectory that should lend toward more cooperation with Taiwan, a thriving democracy and military partner despite lacking formal diplomatic ties with the U.S., Mr. Wang said.
“From now on the U.S.-China relationship will be based on ‘distrust and verify.’ Now it’s totally different,” Mr. Wang told Global Atlanta in an interview, echoing Mr. Pompeo’s manipulation of the Reagan-era Cold War adage. “This is a threshold for U.S.-China relationship, but also a new opportunity for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.”
Especially with the closure of the mainland Chinese outpost covering Georgia and much of the Southeast, Mr. Wang sees more room for his office to maneuver, a stark shift from the quiet squeeze China had put on its activities in previous years.
Despite the fact that many Southern states remain close with Taiwan, a key buyer of farm products and military equipment with links to the South, former Taiwanese diplomats here have complained that China’s economic leverage created a chilling effect on local openness to working with Taiwan.
Outgoing director-general Vincent Jing-yen Liu told Global Atlanta shortly before his departure that even the slightest entreaty by Taiwan was approached gingerly by political leaders, nonprofits and companies.
“China’s pressure is everywhere, all the time; sometimes I feel that it’s hard for me to answer the question because it was pre-existing and we just assume it’s a given condition,” he said in January response to a question about China’s influence growing.
In some cases, Chinese pressure was more explicit, as when it ordered airlines including Delta Air Lines Inc. to remove Taiwan from a list countries on their websites or face consequences for their business in China. (Delta buckled, prompting Mr. Liu to send a letter in protest and request a meeting with executives.)
Mr. Wang, the new director-general, believes the U.S. government’s more muscular approach, combined with the closure of the Houston Chinese consulate, means companies and institutions will face less Chinese blowback upon engaging with Taiwan.
“This is a very important point for those organizations,” he said, speaking just after publishing a Global Atlanta commentary about Taiwan’s view on the global ramifications of the Hong Kong national security law.
In Atlanta, the more than 40-year-old TECO office will support broader objectives in advancing the bilateral relationship: pushing for greater participation in multilateral institutions like the World Health Organization, increased dialogue on territorial issues in the South China Sea and the completion of an investment treaty or free-trade agreement with the U.S.
Taiwan’s global standing has been buoyed by its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite its proximity and trade links with China, the island has logged just 467 cases and only seven deaths.
Yet locally, Mr. Wang believes there is much more to be done in telling the story of the island of 23 million people that continues to punch above its weight economically. He plans to enhance TECO’s social media presence and media outreach.
His suggested cultural exchanges include the sending of more Mandarin Chinese teachers from Taiwan to the U.S., and donations of personal protective equipment — like a shipment of 10,000 N95 masks coming to Georgia this week — will show Taiwan’s continued goodwill, he said.
Beyond being the 10th largest trading partner of the U.S., Taiwan is home to tech and electronics firms that constitute integral nodes of the global economy. Companies like Apple iPhone contract manufacturer Hon Hai Precision, or Foxconn, as well as Quanta Computer and Nan Ya Plastics, among others, have long had U.S. operations.
But with growing calls to decrease global manufacturing reliance on China, where Taiwanese companies are traditionally strong, more of them are looking to set up manufacturing bases in Southeast Asia or North America.
Recently announced mega-projects by Taiwanese-owned companies in the United States include a $12 billion Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., or TSMC, factory in Arizona, a $9.4 billion Formosa Petrochemical plant in Louisiana and a $10 billion Foxconn complex in Wisconsin, the latter two facing scrutiny over incentives and pushback on a variety of issues before launching production.
While there has not been a massive breakthrough Taiwanese investor in the TECO office’s six-state region — covering Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky — Mr. Wang believes the time is now for Southern states to get their share, if they can provide attractive enough incentives.
“There is the willingness from the Taiwan companies to invest in the United States. In fact, a lot of Taiwanese companies are retreating their supply chains from China to Taiwan, the U.S. or Southeast Asia, so they are looking for opportunity and potential profits,” he said. “I’m very confident that in the near future there will be a big-name company from Taiwan.”
Once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, he recommends state leaders and economic development officials from the South work to correct what he sees as an imbalance in trade interactions.
“Over the past few years, we have seen more trade delegations coming from Taiwan to the U.S., so I would encourage the local governments in this region to seize these windows of opportunity to send more delegations and representatives — even the governors can go by themselves,” he said, noting that more states should join the 12 already with trade offices in Taiwan to facilitate day-to-day interactions. “Having a trade office in Taiwan can benefit your local governments a lot.”
The Global Atlanta interview took place on a day Mr. Wang contacted Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan by phone, inviting the former minor league pitcher to throw out the first pitch at a Taiwanese baseball game. It came a day before the death of Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, who died at 97.
Being trapped in the office has been a hazard of arriving in the South during a pandemic: Mr. Wang was slated to arrive in the Atlanta in June, but the flight was delayed at least four times.
Coming from Taiwan, which has kept the virus at bay, he admitted to be a bit nervous sharing a plane with other passengers in the U.S., where cases are still on the rise.
But advantages have also emerged: His daughter is taking her London classes virtually, enabling her to join the family in the U.S. And Mr. Wang has learned a lot about video conferencing, which has blessed him with more time to get settled in.
“Normally, when we first arrive in our new post, I have to travel around to meet our counterparts. But during this time it’s quite easy for me. I can just sit in front of the computer and talk by video; it’s both good and bad.”
The Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia is the presenting sponsor of Global Atlanta's Diplomacy Channel. Subscribe here for monthly Diplomacy newsletters.