After attending national conventions of U.S. political parties this year, Taiwan’s top representative here left with more questions than answers.
Even after a nearly 40-year diplomatic career and two previous postings in Washington, Stanley Kao was dumbfounded by how he saw conventional wisdom being upended.
“I thought I had been a good student of your political process, but after this month, I want to return some old textbooks back to the shelf,” Mr. Kao told Global Atlanta while visiting Georgia Tech to speak in an international affairs class. “We were following the campaign with a lot of curiosity and still with a lot of question marks. So my job is to keep my ears and my eyes open and send out my antennae.”
He didn’t say it, but Taiwan had reason to be unnerved by rhetoric on the campaign trail.
While promising a tougher stance on China, Republican Donald J. Trump cast doubt on U.S. commitment to traditional alliances in East Asia, suggesting Japan and Korea, two staunch allies hosting U.S. military bases with tens of thousands of troops, should foot more of the bill for their protection. In one interview, he even went so far as to suggest these countries should pursue their own nuclear weapons, seemingly eschewing a longstanding U.S. commitment to nonproliferation in the region.
Mr. Trump met with Shinzo Abe in New York this week to talk through security and trade issues, but Mr. Kao wasn’t aware of any calls with new Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Taiwan, while not a diplomatic partner, relies heavily on the U.S. for protection, and the U.S. regularly irks China with arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers a wayward province.
Despite the uncertainty after Mr. Trump’s win, Mr. Kao has faith that arms sales will continue and that the depth of Taiwan’s relations with the U.S. will keep ties on an upward trajectory.
His basis: The Taiwan Relations Act passed in the wake of the switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China in 1979. The law binds the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s military aid in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island of 25 million people.
“That’s really a key pillar and really smart legislation safeguarding the survival, the security of Taiwan and regional stability and prosperity,” Mr. Kao said.
And besides, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is much deeper than just the executive branch, he said.
“We’ve been enjoying bipartisan support on Capitol Hill,” he said, noting that a third of U.S. senators belong to the Taiwan Caucus, along with about half of 435 U.S. representatives “We have a big fan club up there.”
During his talk at Georgia Tech, he noted that Taiwan is not too proud to accept its role as a quiet but important partner of the U.S., even if that means doing significant deals through back channels despite having one of the largest (informal) diplomatic missions in Washington.
“We may be meeting your chief people at a Starbucks across the street from my house” to do an arms deal, he said.
But he pointed out that uncertainty is not just on the U.S. side.
Taiwan in January elected its first female president. Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party was catapulted to power in a landslide victory driven by discontent over eight years of closer cooperation with the mainland during the government of Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. Last November, this warming of relations culminated in a meeting between Mr. Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first time leaders of the former civil-war adversaries had come together since their split in 1949.
But Ms. Tsai refuses to recognize the so-called “1992 Consensus” that forms the basis for Chinese engagement with Taiwan. In it, both sides agreed that there’s only one China but that they have different interpretations of who owns that title. The U.S. has backed the “one-China” principle and urges both sides to work out their differences peacefully.
Ms. Tsai favors calling the 1992 outcomes “historical fact.” But she has also stopped short of the pro-independence stance of the previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, who was widely seen as threatening to Asian stability before he lost to Mr. Ma in 2008.
Mr. Kao says his new president has been called a “smart cookie” who has been able to balance the need to reflect the wariness toward China of her largely younger supporters with regional security imperatives.
“Since her inauguration, this I-word, ‘independence,’ never came up. She wants to be very reassuring that there will be no miscalculation and no misunderstanding,” Mr. Kao said, but that hasn’t been good enough for mainlanders. “Beijing said, ‘If you don’t say those magic words, 1992 consensus, you’re not finishing your exam paper. You’re staying in the classroom.’”
Taiwan’s Trade Dance
Taiwan, the ninth-largest U.S. trading partner on its own, has been striving to keep itself relevant in the increasingly complex value chains of the Asia-Pacific region, but it risks being locked out of multilateral deals due to its complicated relationship with China.
The country had been preparing to board the “second train” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation trade deal President Barack Obama pushed to pass, but with Mr. Trump’s election, “Now we have to see if the first train will ever come.” Other countries have started to ratify the deal, but Mr. Trump has vowed to kill it during his first 100 days in office.
Some are concerned that China will fill the U.S. leadership vacuum with its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a 16-nation deal of its own. Mr. Kao said Taiwan isn’t necessarily averse to joining RCEP, but it might be more inclined to pursue bilateral deals.
“We never say never. We need help, and Taiwan wants to stay relevant, to be there whatever it takes,” he said, adding that he couldn’t rule out joining a redefined TPP without the U.S.
Taiwan, an island smaller than the state of Georgia, has insinuated itself into global supply chains through its manufacturing prowess, but Mr. Kao said the days of being one of the “Asian Tigers” are over and that it needs to focus on creative industries, startups, renewable energy
President Tsai he said, took the “bold” step of breaking out its trade team from under the Ministry of Economic Affairs to its own agency similar to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
He added that the strong ties with the U.S. will continue based on their shared democratic values.
For Mr. Kao, it was somewhat of a homecoming to Atlanta, a city where he served nearly four years in the local Taipei office in the early to mid-1990s. Fond memories from his posting here include the birth of his daughter and the Atlanta Braves’ 1995 World Series victory. He attended the final game where “our Braves” clinched the series against the Cleveland Indians. Also on the baseball front, he remembers securing training space for the Taiwanese team coming in for the 1996 Olympics, though he departed in 1995.