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Lawmakers walk tightrope on upping Taiwan's diplomatic status as Biden casts doubt on 'ambiguity'

Rachel Oswald, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

Notably, it wasn’t the bill’s many significant provisions aimed at improving Taiwan’s military capabilities that sparked the most controversy among committee members, nor with the White House, nor even with experts in Taipei.

Rather, it was provisions related to things seemingly non-threatening. That list included what the official name should be of Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington.

“It’s escalatory because it is directly challenging the foundational understanding that has allowed U.S.-China bilateral relations to normalize,” said Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst based in Taipei with the International Crisis Group. “If not crossing that line, it’s coming up real close to making the U.S.-Taiwan relationship official in all but name and that is extremely threatening to Beijing.”

While symbolic diplomatic gestures such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan might seem relatively innocuous, Beijing views them as highly inflammatory.

That’s because, according to those who focus on internal Chinese political dynamics, U.S.-Taiwan discussions around things like a speedier weapons acquisition timetable tend to be very bureaucratic. So they receive little mainstream press coverage and can fly under the public’s radar. That’s not the case with symbolic gestures like including senior Taiwanese officials in multilateral meetings with their regional counterparts.

Diplomatic actions that effectively treat Taiwan as a sovereign country are easily understood and receive more press and public attention. And so it becomes difficult for Beijing to maintain its propaganda narrative around Taiwan — that unification with the island under Chinese rule is inevitable. That’s what China’s increasingly nationalistic domestic audience is used to hearing and it reacts angrily when that narrative is challenged, such as with Pelosi’s visit.

 

An original bill provision to require the renaming of the unwieldy Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office to the somewhat more standard “Taiwan Representative Office” was diluted in negotiations to a mere recommendation. Also stripped out was a requirement the senior U.S. diplomat in Taipei have a title change from “director of the American Institute in Taiwan” to “U.S. representative.”

“I think that things like changing the name of the office is not substantively helping Taiwan to shore up its defenses or substantively raising the costs of an invasion for China, it’s not going to deter China,” Hsiao said. “But it’s forcing them to respond because that’s the kind of stuff that they feel publicly that they just have to retaliate.”

But kept in the bill were other diplomatic engagement provisions that — while not extending official diplomatic recognition to Taiwan — would cumulatively result in the Taiwanese government being treated more like the approximately 190 other countries with which the U.S. has formal diplomatic relations.

Among those provisions were a requirement for the State Department to end any administrative restrictions on Taiwanese officials in the U.S. flying the Taiwanese flag and the establishment of a new U.S. policy that Taiwanese counterparts are to be invited to participate in high-level bilateral and multilateral summits, military exercises and economic dialogues.

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