Why the official reaffirmation of U.S. ‘Alliance’ with Taiwan was more than a bar mitzvah

The Taiwan Relations Act, a law first passed by Congress in 1979, was amended in 2016 to “recognize that we are in favor of Taiwan’s reunification with the People’s Republic of China.” The government in Taipei said the U.S. government is approaching the situation from the viewpoint of guaranteeing Taiwan’s “core interests,” such as security and freedom of movement. Taiwan’s relations with China have become even more delicate in recent years, as Beijing has deepened its economic ties with the U.S. and European countries, and increased military assertiveness to exert its control over the Taiwan Strait. President Xi Jinping’s government has also strengthened what it calls its “intimate ties” with Beijing’s mainland—notably the joint patrols around Taiwan.

The new Taiwan Day ceremony, which was billed as “the launch of a new era of Alliance” between the two countries, was part of the official series of summits, events and initiatives for the month-long summit, which ends on January 22. In addition to the Taiwanese delegation in Washington, there were also news conferences featuring officials from the two countries. This marked the first time a Taiwan official—and a vice-president—had attended a U.S. event, and it also marked the first meeting between Taiwan’s elected government and the White House.

The law could not be announced with the Trump administration in place, but a U.S. delegation of nearly 40 people spent about an hour and a half during the festivities Wednesday welcoming the Taiwanese delegation to the White House. When the audience broke into applause, Vice President Mike Pence joined in. “We are grateful for the United States’ 30-year bond with Taiwan,” Chao told Vice President Pence during a question-and-answer session.

Vice President Pence: “To show we have made this a priority, we’re sending Taiwanese Vice President Tsai Ing-wen to the United States right now.” pic.twitter.com/82pFgo2Hcp — ABC News (@ABC) January 9, 2019

President Trump praised the bilateral relationship with Taiwan during his remarks Wednesday morning. “Our relationship with Taiwan has never been stronger,” Mr. Trump said. “We are honoured to host the Taiwanese leadership for their annual meeting in Washington, D.C. We greatly value the great cultural and economic ties between our two countries.”

White House: Washington, D.C. is home to some of Taiwan’s finest cultural and culinary organizations. President Trump: “We’re honored to host the Taiwanese leadership for their annual meeting in Washington, D.C. We greatly value the great cultural and economic ties between our two countries.” pic.twitter.com/TgczX5Mvl1 — ABC News (@ABC) January 9, 2019

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s public embrace of Taiwan may indicate to China that the U.S. has grown more defiant, but it does not have anywhere near the power to make it an end-all, be-all policy for relations with China. In Washington, there is a widespread view that China’s economic advantage is the price Taipei is paying for independence. Despite its insistence on reunification, Beijing is highly skeptical of Taiwan’s democratic experiment. They argue that the country is a haven for subversion and terrorism, and part of the problem is that it maintains several branches of government and multiple military services, unlike the mainland which has only the People’s Liberation Army. It’s a curious combination of the two leadership approaches, and one that is foreign to most Americans.

Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice responded to reports that the U.S. government was summoning the Taiwanese leaders by saying in a statement to ABC News that the U.S. should “always be respectful of the views of our allies and maintain an open dialogue on issues of security.” Rice, who is now the Brookings Institution’s national security fellow, emphasized that the U.S. supports the “Reunification of Taiwan” with the Chinese mainland.

Perhaps the most important issue, though, is the “one China” principle, which has divided China’s leadership for decades. According to the “one China” rule, no two countries can claim Taiwan as their own. President Trump, at a press conference with the Taiwanese Vice President, remarked that the term “Taiwan” would no longer be used. The Taiwanese government now says “Taiwan” will only mean Taiwan in its legislative language.

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