Taiwan leader’s US trip comes with baggage

Tsai arrives in New York and has a packed itinerary for her diplomatically fraught ‘transit.’
Alex Willemyns for RFA
Taiwan leader’s US trip comes with baggage Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen gestures while standing in front of soldiers during a visit to a military base in Chiayi, Taiwan March 25, 2023.

Most travelers do their best to avoid extended layovers. 

Not Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who arrives in New York on Wednesday for two nights of what is being billed as “transit” en route to the democratic island’s few remaining allies in Central America.

Tsai won’t be using the down time to visit the Statue of Liberty or to brave a chilly walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. She won’t even catch the Yankees’ spring training game against the San Francisco Giants.

Instead, the Taiwanese president, who has weathered a year of predictions about her island being invaded by China amid worsening relations between Washington and Beijing, has some work planned.

On Thursday, her only full day in New York, Tsai is set to receive a leadership award from the Hudson Institute, a conservative foreign-policy think tank, where she will also deliver a speech.

After leaving on Friday for Guatemala and Belize – two of the few remaining countries to maintain diplomatic ties with her self-governing island instead of Beijing – Tsai then flies back to Los Angeles on Tuesday, where she will spend two more nights in transit.

There, Tsai will deliver another speech – this time at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in the nearby city of Simi Valley – and meet new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has vowed to lead a congressional delegation back to Taiwan later this year.

If that all sounds a lot like an official visit to the United States by the leader of a close ally (to which President Joe Biden has repeatedly vowed full military support) don’t be confused. It’s just transit.

What’s in a name?

On March 8, Matt Lee, the diplomatic writer for the Associated Press, asked the State Department’s then-spokesman, Ned Price, why Tsai’s visit was still being billed just as “transit,” questioning the official U.S. line that it was being allowed for her “comfort and convenience.”

“It may be ‘comfortable’ and it may be ‘convenient,’ kind of like spending two weeks in Palm Springs on the U.S. government’s dime preparing for APEC,” Lee said, referring to an annual conference. But he added, “if I was flying from the U.S. to China and decided to stop in L.A. for three days, I don’t think the airline would say that’s transit.”

Price did not budge, refusing to describe Tsai’s visit as anything other than “transit” and saying it was part of the “status quo” on Taiwan, which buys billions of dollars of U.S. arms but which Beijing considers a renegade province and has vowed to “reunite” with the mainland.

In this Wednesday, March 27, 2019, photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen [right] is greeted by supporters upon arriving in Hawaii. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP)

“Transits of the United States by high-level Taiwan officials are consistent with longstanding U.S. policy and with our unofficial and strong relations with Taiwan,” Price said. “President Tsai herself has transited the United States six times in the last seven years. There has been absolutely no change to the U.S. ‘One China’ policy.”

“The transit of high-level Taiwan officials is consistent” with the “One China” policy, Price explained. “It’s been done before. It is a practice.” He added that he was “not aware” of any plans for State Department officials to meet Tsai during her six days on American soil. 

Semi official

Dennis Wilder, a research fellow with the U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University, told Radio Free Asia that the sensitivities around Tsai’s trip came down to Washington’s balancing act on Taiwan since it normalized relations with Beijing in the 1970s.

That switch in diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing – brokered by President Richard Nixon from the late 1960s but formalized by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 – has required the U.S. to deny Taiwan is independent of Beijing, even as it serves as the island’s patron.

Wilder, who served as CIA deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific and before that as the White House National Security Council's director for East Asia under President George W. Bush, said the use of “transit” for trips like Tsai’s was meant to placate Beijing.

“The history of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan ever since the normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China has been one where, if you will, we put an unofficial nature to actually what is pretty official relationships with Taiwan,” Wilder said.

He noted America’s diplomatic mission in Taiwan was not called an embassy but the “American Institute in Taiwan,” that Taiwan’s mission in Washington was similarly misnamed, and that U.S. officials did not meet Taiwanese counterparts in official government buildings.

Referring to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit as a transit is “something of a fig leaf” for the United States, says Dennis Wilder, a research fellow with the U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University. (Associated Press)

“There are a lot of little gestures we make that are to, if you will, make Beijing less uncomfortable with the relationship,” Wilder said. “And so for a ‘transit’ like the one that President Tsai will be making, we've always called it ‘for the comfort and the safety of the Taiwan leader,’ rather than calling any kind of official visit to the United States.”

“It’s something of a fig leaf,” he added.

Her predecessor visits Beijing

Tsai’s trip to the United States comes at a particularly fraught time in U.S.-China relations, with a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island last year leading to a nadir in relations with Beijing.

Ties between the world’s two superpowers were on the mend until an alleged Chinese spy balloon was found floating over the United States in February, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his trip to Beijing at the last minute.

Tsai’s visit also comes as her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition Kuomintang, is in Beijing. 

Ma had sought to improve Taiwan’s ties to Beijing while in office and is the first former Taiwanese president to visit the mainland since the two sides split amid war in 1949. He arrived on Monday and will be there until April 7, the day before Tsai returns from Los Angeles.

But the history of the unofficial ties between Washington and Taipei causing diplomatic froth goes back a lot further than Pelosi and Ma.

The practice of furtive overseas tours was pioneered in 1995 by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, according to William Overholt, a senior research fellow at John F. Kennedy School of Government's Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government.

Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui receives the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences during a breakfast banquet at the university at Ithaca, N.Y., in 1995. (Associated Press)

Lee started visiting countries “under the guise of a vacation, and then immediately claiming that their allowing his visit showed that those countries actually recognized Taiwan,” Overholt told RFA.

“He then used it on us, with the excuse of visiting his alma mater Cornell,” Overholt said. That caused the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis. “Our legislators took the excuse at face value. China reacted to Lee’s larger strategy. It was the greatest Sino-American crisis since 1958.”

This visit follows that pattern,” he added. “A visit that includes two-day stopovers in both directions and senior government meetings obviously is just a cover for an official visit. This is just a repeat of the Lee strategy, except that we’re more welcoming of that strategy this time.”

Don’t mention the war

There has already been a harsh reaction from Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin accusing the United States “obscuring and hollowing out the ‘One China’ principle” by allowing Tsai’s visit, and Tsai of trying to “propagate Taiwan independence.”

“We strongly oppose any form of official interaction between the U.S. and Taiwan, strongly oppose any U.S. visit by the leader of the Taiwan authorities regardless of the rationale or pretext, and strongly oppose all forms of U.S. contact with the Taiwan authorities, which violates the ‘One China’ principle,” Wang said in a press briefing last Tuesday.

Wilder said Beijing’s reaction to Tsai’s “transit” would depend on how much the question of potential Taiwanese independence features and how the American media and lawmakers talk about her trip.

“This is really the red line, and one that Beijing will watch very closely,” he said. “The danger is we can love Taiwan too much.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.