Taiwan Calling

By Thomas Armbruster:

Somebody in the State Department turned purple when Donald Trump exchanged pleasantries with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.  The U.S. has recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the Republic of China (ROC) Taiwan since 1979, and respects a One China policy following the United Nations determination in 1971 that the PRC should sit in the China seat in New York.  The PRC sees Taiwan as a breakaway province.  Over the years, a modus vivendi has been established and the “rules” about contact with Taiwan, strictly observed by U.S. diplomats abroad.

All that said, Taiwan is a highly functioning democracy and while the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic relations, we have an American Institute in Taiwan.  Check its website and compare it with any U.S. Embassy website in the world.  Yep, kind of looks like an official U.S. presence.  There is no U.S. Ambassador in Taipei, but the American Institute has a Director who is a career Foreign Service Officer, a diplomat.  So just as the U.S. had an Interests Section in Cuba for years in order to do diplomatic business, the U.S. and Taiwan maintain close contact while maintaining a status quo that usually does not upset Big China.  Appearances go a long way in diplomacy.  I’m not suggesting that the American Institute is a full blown Embassy under cover of being an institute, but I would suggest that Taiwan and the U.S. have a wealth of mutual interests and we have means of cooperation far short of full diplomatic relations.

The Marshall Islands, where I was posted from 2012 to 2016, is one of the few countries that recognizes Taiwan, rather than mainland China.  When the Pacific Islands Forum was held in Majuro in a building that Taiwan built, the PRC representatives insisted that the plaque with the Taiwan flag inside the building be covered with a black cloth.  Appearances.  The PRC is very touchy about Taiwan and for years there have been unwritten rules.  Donald Trump’s acceptance of the call was clearly outside of the rulebook but so far the PRC is treating it lightly, almost saying ‘good one, Taiwan, didn’t see that coming!’  That’s a good response.

For countries with relations with the Republic of China there can be some advantages over relations with the PRC.  For the Marshall Islands, Taiwan is a fellow democracy, a great source of education for Marshallese youth, and a strong development and diplomatic partner.  The U.S. provides millions of dollars through the Compact of Free Association to the Marshall Islands for education, health and infrastructure.  Taiwan’s Ambassador during much of my tenure in Majuro was Winston Chen.  According to the State Department rules I could not have Winston over to the Embassy or my residence unless I was acting as “Dean of the Diplomatic Corps,” a “distinction” I earned simply by seniority.  The rules seemed a little silly on an island that was 30 miles long and often a nine iron shot wide but rules were rules.  So, when Winston and I wanted to meet one on one, generally once every couple of weeks, we’d go to an out of the way restaurant for breakfast and talk about politics, local and international, and our development plans.

We worked well together.  The U.S. built a running track near the airport.  Taiwan installed solar lights for joggers to enjoy the track at night.  The U.S. provided basketball equipment.  Taiwan built new courts.  I remember a number of ribbon cuttings on new Taiwan-built basketball courts, chatting with Winston while we sipped our coconut water and waited for the President or Mayor to arrive.  Winston also came to all of the American diplomatic events that were “off campus.”  We each participated in an “Ambassadors’ Garden Prize for the schools with the best gardens, along with the Embassy of Japan to encourage healthy lifestyles.  Taiwan runs a model farm, teaching Marshallese farmers how to raise over 20 varieties of tropical plants along with livestock.  We often cooperated on healthy diet programs, given the incidence of diabetes and other lifestyle diseases in the Marshalls.  In short, our relationship was one of cooperation.

For my colleagues in other Pacific countries where the PRC was the diplomatic partner, it was always a question of competition.  The PRC vs. the U.S.  And the PRC these days can usually outspend the United States on the diplomatic front.  The Pivot to the Asia Pacific region is not easy when you are being outspent.  Still, the PRC is not always seen as the partner of choice.  Chinese fishing vessels don’t always play by the same rules as American vessels, creating environmental havoc in sensitive Pacific island nations that rely on the sea.  And Taiwan has an indigenous culture with traditions and a history that links with Pacific Island nations.

I should add that Taiwanese diplomats are exceptionally skilled.  Winston and his team knew Marshallese politics, from the national politics in Majuro to the Mayoral level on the outer islands.  They traveled, knew everyone and were genuinely interested in the Marshall Islands economic and social development.  As a development partner, the Taiwanese are hard to beat.  But the PRC is like a Jupiter-sized planet with Taiwan being a small moon captured by the weight of Jupiter and forever in Jupiter’s orbit, if not to be absorbed by Jupiter itself.

This is where I suppose I should editorialize about how dangerous it is to do diplomacy off the cuff and accept calls “willy nilly” from anywhere on the globe.  But the truth is Winston and his colleagues did a pretty good job on me too.  I respect Taiwan’s energy, entrepreneurialism and positive international interactions.  If the Trump call opens up a new normal that gives Taiwan a little more space, terrific.  After all, what does the People’s Republic of China have that Taiwan doesn’t?  Oh yes, a billion people, nuclear weapons, and a large share of U.S. bonds.  OK.  Perhaps we should tread carefully, but I stand by respect for Taiwan.  A little basketball diplomacy can go a long way.  And for that State Department official who turned purple… breathe.  Just breathe.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.

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