Stopover Hysteria: Understanding Tsai’s Stopover in the United States

Photo credit: The Office of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

On January 7, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan will embark on a trip to the United States—not to visit President Barack Obama or President-elect Donald Trump, but to refuel her plane, rest, and conduct some meetings before moving on to Central America. This type of visit has become routine in U.S.-Taiwan relations and is nothing new or particularly special, so why is this trip so controversial?


Tsai is stopping in the U.S. en route to state visits to some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, specifically Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. News outlets have covered this trip not because these countries are four on a list of only twenty-one states with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan or because Sao Tome and Pincipe recently switched its recognition from Taiwan to China (a long and growing list), but because Tsai will stop in Houston and San Francisco briefly during transit. Since 1994, every president of Taiwan has landed in the United States while en route to visit diplomatic allies. These visits have ranged from a few hours to a few days—depending upon the state of U.S.-Taiwan relations.


The president of Taiwan must receive special permission from the U.S. government to land or to stay in the country for any amount of time. This rule was established to ease the minds of the Chinese who are suspicious of any interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan that hints of any kind of diplomatic recognition. Since the U.S. severed ties with Taiwan in 1979, no president of Taiwan has participated in an official state visit in the U.S.—only brief stopovers and meetings with U.S. Congressmen and other people of note.


In a post-“Trump Call” world, China is on alert for any indications of a major change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. As a result, the Chinese foreign ministry has been unusually quite vocal about the potential of a Tsai stopover in the U.S. When asked about Tsai’s visit, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said,


The one-China policy is a consensus shared by the international community, and also a principle of how we handle Taiwan’s engagement with foreign countries. We hope that relevant countries can carefully address Taiwan-related issues. As to the Taiwan leader’s transit in the US, I believe her real intention is clear to all. We hope that the US side can follow the one-China policy and the three joint communiques, disallow the Taiwan leader’s transit in the US, refrain from sending any wrong signal to the pro-independence force in Taiwan, and take concrete steps to uphold the overall interests of China-US relations and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.


In early December 2016, another spokesman said that “the so-called transit diplomacy is only a petty trick played by the Taiwan leader, whose hidden political agenda should be clear to all.” Despite these protests, the U.S. granted Tsai approval, and she will be landing in Houston  on January 7 and departing for Honduras on January 8, and then she will land in San Francisco on January 13 and return to Taiwan on January 15. Previous presidents have stopped over in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Miami, Honolulu, and Anchorage—with the final city being the unofficial stopover location when ties between the U.S. and Taiwan are less than stellar.


Tsai has a busy schedule for her visit to Central America: she is visiting Honduras after being invited by its president, Juan Orlando Hernandez; she will attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua; and she will visit Antigua in Guatemala to promote tourism between Taiwan and Guatemala. All of these visits and events are important for the continuation of relations between these countries and Taiwan, but the only feature of the trip extensively covered in the news is her stopover in the U.S. and China’s outrage over what had become routine.


The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) noted to Reuters the routine nature of these visits: “President Tsai’s transit through the United States is based on long-standing U.S. practice and is consistent with the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan.” No matter how much the media or China tries to play up the controversy of this stopover, it should not qualify as exceptionally newsworthy. China’s perception of possible changes in U.S. policy and U.S.-Taiwan relations has caused even the smallest bit of information to be blown out of proportion. Did China raise a stink when Secretary of State John Kerry met with James Soong, Taiwan’s representative to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2016? How about when U.S. Ambassador Matthew J. Matthews, Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Senior Official for APEC, visited Taiwan in early December 2016? No—because these visits are routine, nothing special, just like Tsai’s impending “visit.”


The one thing to look out for is who Tsai meets in San Francisco and Houston. During her visit stopover in Miami in June 2016, Tsai met with Senator Marco Rubio. Will anyone tapped to be in the Trump administration meet with her? If so, how senior of an official and from which department? The answers to these questions are important and could give a glimpse into how a Trump administration will handle the “Taiwan question” beyond the infamous phone call. The genuine issues at stake here are not a routine stopover, but the seemingly deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China, the apparent risks to cross-strait relations, and apprehensions about what the impending Trump administration will do come January 20, 2017 in regards to cross-strait relations and China policy. 

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Desperate for Attention: Hung-Xi Meeting Lacks Meaning

On November 1, 2016, Hung Hsiu-chu, chairwoman of the Kuomintang (KMT), met with Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP), at an annual forum between the KMT and CCP. This meeting received much fanfare in the media. The amount of attention that this photo op received may seem puzzling: Hung is not the president of Taiwan; she was such an unappealing presidential candidate that the KMT replaced her three months before the election; and the KMT does not hold the presidency or legislature making it the opposition party for the first time in Taiwan’s history. Hung kept floating the idea of promoting a “peace platform” even though she lacks any authority or mandate to negotiate or sign an agreement between Taiwan and China. In fact, it would be illegal. The Hung-Xi meeting only holds ceremonial importance, but even that characterization is a stretch. It has been incorrectly framed as another historic Ma-Xi meeting. That handshake represented years of negotiating, and having the sitting leaders of Taiwan and China finally meet marked a potential new chapter in cross-strait relations. That much hoped for chapter never materialized due to the KMT’s electoral collapse, and framing the Hung-Xi meeting in the same context does disservice to the historic nature of the meeting in Singapore last year.




For Hung, it is a desperate headline grab that will further alienate the KMT from the populace, and for Xi, it is an attempt to embarrass President Tsai Ing-wen, who has called for a resumption of “talks” between Taiwan and China. While this event does occur annually between the leaders of the two parties, the timing and circumstances for a peace deal are not right: Taiwanese identity is at an all-time high, and the historic election in January 2016 shows that the public mood is against further integration with China. If Hung wanted to push the KMT further away from the public and continue to lose elections, then she made the correct move. Her views on unification do not align with the broad base of the public’s, and they are so pro-China that it is one of the reasons the KMT replaced her when she ran for president in 2015. Why does Hung think that she has any legal or political mandate to even think about such a deal?


The way in which Hung acted before and during the “Cross-Strait Peace Development Forum” rankled members of both the KMT and DPP. Before the scheduled meeting, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) publicly warned Hung not to address “politically sensitive” topics with Xi. After the meeting, DPP officials said that she let the nation down through her actions. She did not challenge Xi’s statements on “one China,” so the term “Republic of China” (Taiwan’s official name) was omitted from the record again. DPP officials also expressed worry about Hung trying to move towards a similar definition of “one China” with the CCP. New Power Party (NPP) chairman Huang Kuo-chang (a new party that formed after the Sunflower Movement) expressed his discontent with this meeting by saying that KMT was “toeing the Communist line of united front while distancing itself farther and farther away from mainstream Taiwan.” Also, before this meeting, KMT officials emphasized “one China, different interpretations,” which is former President Ma Ying-jeou’s preferred formulation.  There are even reports that Hung argued with Ma over the 1992 Consensus and what “one China, different interpretations” means. If Ma—who advocated and maintained the status quo during his time in office—had to argue with her over the party’s interpretation of the 1992 Consensus, that shows how radical of a view she has.


As long as Hung controls the KMT, she could derail any chances that the party has of retaking major offices. The best hope for the party is that she gets ousted by a moderate member of the KMT so the party can work towards making meaningful policy changes that the public will accept. Hung and the KMT cannot hedge on a Tsai stumble or Chinese pressure to bring voters back into their ranks. This election solidifies a shift in Taiwanese political ideals, and the KMT must evolve to remain a viable party option. The party must move with the people, not vice versa. If ideologues like Hung continue to chair the party, create the platform, and pull stunts like the meeting with Xi, then the KMT is a lost cause.

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[Taiwan] Is Not Made In China

Recent incidents continue to demonstrate how the People’s Republic of China is attempting to isolate Taiwan from the international community. These actions (both on the micro and macro level) bode ill for how China is going to engage with Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-Wen, whose election Beijing opposed.


Reports from a Shanghai bookstore show the nonsensical lengths that some people in China will go to “exclude” Taiwan. Bookstores are ripping “Taiwan” out of the Merriam-Webster dictionary before customers have the opportunity to purchase it. Other shops simply black out Taiwan-related entries. This “correction” removes any hint of recognition of a “Republic of China” or “Taiwan,” at the expense of other words beginning with the letter “T.” It is a crude method of censorship that boggles the mind—if Merriam-Webster produces dictionaries with apparently offending entries, why does the Chinese government allow them to be sold? It already bans Western social media websites and movies that promote “Western values.” Why risk the embarrassing news story? Ridiculous does not come close to describing these actions.

The dictionary incident follows another high profile kerfuffle over a popular Chinese television show—a game show where foreign students compete based on their Mandarin abilities—which omitted Taiwan from a map of China. Since China views Taiwan as a part of it, this omission sparked outrage online. Hunan Television, the channel on which the offending show aired, released a statement: “We feel a deep sense of dereliction of duty at the ‘problem map’ incident and feel deeply pained.” The station even clarified that all employees believe that Taiwan is not independent but part of China. The harsh reaction from these netizens shows how sensitive of a topic Taiwanese identity is on the Mainland. The choice of wordage in Hunan Television’s statement escalates the severity of the issue: being “deeply pained” and admitting a “dereliction of duty” are words one would not expect to find over such an omission. Taiwan’s existence as a de facto independent entity angers Chinese citizens who are fervently nationalist, and incidents like the “problem map” only remind the global community how seriously the “Taiwan Question” is treated on the Mainland.


While the two above examples show controversies stemming from Chinese citizens and businesses, another fresh controversy demonstrates that bookstores and netizens appear to take their cues from authorities in the Chinese Community Party (CCP). In September 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is a part of the United Nations, rejected Taiwan’s request to participate in its 39th Assembly in Montreal. At this assembly, nations discuss aviation policy, and despite Taiwan’s central location within East Asia, ICAO still decided not to accept its request. According to Airports Council International, “More than 1.53 million aircraft carrying 58 million passengers passed through the Taipei Flight Information Region last year. In addition, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport was ranked 11th and sixth busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger and cargo volumes, respectively.” This high level of air traffic alone should qualify it for a seat at these assemblies. Taiwan had participated in the 38th assembly in 2013 with the hope of continued participation. In 2013, China “asked for Taiwan to be invited.” This year, due to harsh Chinese backlash from Taiwan electing Tsai as president, China pressed ICAO not to allow Taiwan to join the assembly, and ICAO’s spokesperson said that it was “follow[ing] the United Nations’ ‘One China’ policy.” Countries from all across the globe have expressed their support for Taiwan’s participation in ICAO meetings and discontent with ICAO backing down due to Chinese pressure. Stickers saying “The sky is not made in China” have appeared at ICAO headquarters in Montreal in response to Taiwan’s exclusion. China hopes that by further excluding Taiwan from participation in international organizations it can force President Tsai to publicly adhere to the 1992 Consensus. However, such stories create sympathy for Taiwan and its people, and they also further perpetuate the perception of Chinese aggression in the region. China’s own actions paint it in a bad light and generate international support for Taiwan.


In early October 2016, Pew reported (ironically) that 77% of Chinese people think that “their way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence, and such sentiment is up 13 percentage points since 2002.” Considering these events, China and Chinese citizens are the ones negatively influencing the world around them, squeezing and alienating Taiwan and forcing China’s will on international organizations.


No matter what China does—short of war or extreme coercion—Taiwan will still be there as a (de facto) independent entity.

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Taiwan’s Summer of Dire Straits

The summer of 2016 has proven to be a brutal one for the people, president, and pocketbooks of Taiwan. The Taiwanese began the summer months with a newfound sense of hope and rejuvenation after the successful peaceful transfer of power from the outgoing Kuomintang (KMT) to the incoming Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in both the executive and legislative branches of government. These feelings did not last for long. Ravaged by two deadly typhoons—Nepartak and Meranti—the island nation faces millions of dollars in damages to its houses, roadways, and various agricultural sectors. In July, Nepartak caused NT$1.07 billion (over US$30 million) in damages to agriculture, and in September, Meranti caused over NT$850 million (about US$27 million). The southeastern counties, where these storms first made landfall, particularly Taitung County, were hit the hardest. Hundreds of thousands of homes faced power outages and water stoppages from damage caused by the sheer power of these two storms. A world-renowned coral site, known as the “Big Mushroom,” finally toppled after the constant impact of these strong storms in the Pacific Ocean. This formation, over 1,000 years old and the biggest of its kind, is no more. One of the few rays of hope from these two typhoons came from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office—the special government office that deals with cross-strait matters between China and Taiwan—when it offered condolences to victims and wished them well. This released statement was one of the few positive cross-strait interactions to occur since China suspended official communication with Taiwan in late May 2016 when Tsai Ing-wen assumed office.[1] These storms will undoubtedly affect the already struggling tourism industry across the country.


Typhoon Nepartak over Taiwan (Source: NASA)

Unfortunately, this particularly destructive summer of typhoons has not led to an increase in cooperation across the strait. Well wishes are about all Taiwan can hope for in the current state of cross-strait relations. Since Tsai’s election in January 2016 and subsequent inauguration in May 2016, cross-strait relations have soured, but relations between China and Taiwan began souring well before her time in office (i.e., Sunflower Movement, etc.). Various deportation “scandals” of Taiwanese nationals and declining numbers of Mainland tourists have put a very public face to the growing discord between China and Taiwan.

Cross-strait relations have almost entirely reset since May—China continues to assert itself both regionally and globally, and Tsai and the DPP-controlled Legislative Yuan (立法院) must be vigilant in trying to create more opportunities for Taiwan in the international sphere. Over the past several months, several countries have deported Taiwanese nationals suspected of various forms of fraud to China causing uproar. In April, Kenya sent 45 Taiwanese nationals to China, and in August, it deported another five individuals. These deportations sparked outrage because the people and government of Taiwan viewed it as a slight to their nation and as another instance for China to assert its power over them. While some have argued that this deportation process is normal operating procedure—Kenya sent them back to the city that they departed from—Taiwan’s government lodged complaints saying that these deportation were nothing more than “extrajudicial abduction.” China argued that these people flew out of China and targeted Chinese citizens with these scams and that as citizens of Taiwan (which China views as a rogue province), they were under the jurisdiction of China. This issue did not just involve Kenya—Armenia recently deported over 70 individuals to China, Cambodia deported another 13, and Malaysia sent 32 suspects. After the latest round of deportations from Armenia, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement, “We have repeatedly demanded the Chinese side not to deport our people to mainland China. The Chinese side’s action again disregarded our call … and further hurt the feelings of Taiwanese people.” Making these deportations such a large, international issue between China, Taiwan, and several other countries demonstrates Taiwan’s lack of options when pitted against China—not so strongly worded statements of condemnation. These countries chose to avoid challenging China instead of pleasing Taiwan.

China’s self-assertion also involves pinching local Taiwanese citizens’ pocketbooks by preventing Mainlanders from travelling to the island. The normal deluge of Mainland tourists to Taiwan has slowed to a trickle over the summer in response to Tsai’s election and her refusal to meet Beijing’s demand of accepting the 1992 Consensus. Though Tsai has moved towards the center recently in this regard, Beijing’s “red line” is its acceptance for the continuation of cross-strait relations. In 2015, between May and July, over 1 million Mainlanders came to Taiwan; this year, during that same time period, under 900,000 made the trip—the lowest since 2013—for a difference of nearly 150,000 tourists.[2] While that number does not seem too significant at face value, there are now that many fewer people renting rooms, using tour buses, taking taxis, frequenting museums and restaurants, and buying souvenirs. Places once full of tourists are now empty thanks to this 30% decrease in Mainland visitors. Workers rallied in Taipei to protest their current situation, and the government has set up a NT$ 960 million fund to help ease the burden. It has gotten so bad that counties not run by the DPP have sent delegations to China in order to encourage tourism to specific cities and counties that have a more friendly view of China. These leaders hope to increase tourism again and create new markets to increase economic interactions.


Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen (Source: Office of the President, Republic of China, Taiwan)

Tsai completed her first 100 days as president in August. They mainly have been characterized by a stalemate in cross-strait relations over how she has handled the 1992 Consensus. Her political capital after winning this historic election is slowly running out. Since her inauguration, Tsai’s approval rating has plummeted by 25% from 70% (in May) to 56% (in July) to 45.5% (in August). Another poll has her approval rating as low as 40.8%. She has now witnessed firsthand that running for president and being the president are two very different things and that the opinion of the electorate is fleeting—as her predecessor learned before her. As the months continue to pass by, Tsai may find herself backed into a corner that she put herself in and no viable path to move forward.  Moving into autumn, she has the unenviable task of leading Taiwan through a typhoon recovery effort, a tourism shortage, an always-encroaching China as well as working towards rejuvenating Taiwan’s economy.


[1]  Javier C. Hernández, “China Suspends Diplomatic Contact With Taiwan,” New York Times, June 25, 2016, accessed September 20, 2016; and Shannon Tiezzi, “Did China Just Kill Cross-Strait Relations?,” The Diplomat, June 26, 2016, accessed September 20, 2016.

[2] Tourism Bureau, “Visitor Statistics,” M.O.T.C. Republic of China (Taiwan), accessed September 21, 2016.

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Influencing China

Since President Nixon’s historic meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972, the U.S. – China relationship has developed into a dynamic and challenging strategic relationship that should not be taken for granted.

China on world map

The bilateral relationship was established primarily because both the U.S. and China were concerned about Soviet expansionism.  China witnessed this during the 1960s, concerned that the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons against a defiant China.  The U.S. was concerned with Soviet inroads in Latin America and threats to our NATO allies.  This convergence of interests, to counter the Soviet Union, brought President Nixon to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao.  Eventually, in 1979, normal diplomatic relations were established.

Chairman Deng Xiaoping, after being purged twice and surviving the Gang of Four, quickly moved China closer to the U.S.  His priorities were clear:  Improving a sick economy and countering the Soviets.  Deng did both.  He discarded Marxism and introduced capitalism to an economically sick China.  He encouraged U.S. investment and exhorted Chinese students to get an education in the U.S., so as to help jump start the economy. At the same time, Deng worked with President Carter to ensure that both countries shared information on the Soviet Union and cooperated in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Eventually the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan and after their withdrawal in 1987, President Gorbachev visited Beijing in June 1989, in an effort to solicit a loan from China.  How ironic.

Cooperating against the Soviet Union was in the interest of both China and the U.S., as was a close economic relationship. Thus bilateral relations thrived when it was mutually beneficial.

The 1989 Tian An Men incident was a clear statement from Chairman Deng that civic disobedience would not be tolerated.  The crack down on the students and others at Tian An Men on June 4, 1989 was reaffirmation from the leadership that the Communist Party would not tolerate civil unrest; that the Party was in charge and controlled the gun.  While Marxism was dead, Leninism and Party control would retain power.  U.S. condemnation of Beijing for its handling of this incident put a chill in the bilateral relationship.

The 1990’s, with Chairman Jiang Zemin in charge, was a period of economic cooperation, with Prime Minister Ju Rongji working hard to enhance U.S.- China economic cooperation.  The U.S. worked equally hard to get China into the World Trade Organization and to grant China Most Favored Nation economic status.  Politically, however, the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis was a clear message from the U.S. to China that the U.S., in line with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, would come to the defense of Taiwan if China attempted to use military force to invade or intimidate Taiwan.  The introduction of two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 was a stark message to China that the U.S. would not abandon Taiwan.  It also impressed upon the Chinese leadership that China’s military was no match for the U.S.

The beginning of the 21st century witnessed U.S. – China collaboration, on issues dealing with international terrorism, proliferation, piracy on the seas and North Korea, for which China took the lead in hosting Six Party nuclear negotiations with North Korea, starting in August 2003.  It was during this period that the Strategic Dialogue with China was established, headed by the Deputy Secretary of State and China’s Deputy Foreign Minister.  These geopolitical issues were of interest to China and the U.S., thus cooperation was good.  It was also during this period that China started to put more emphasis on building its military capabilities.

Currently, the U.S. – China economic relationship is extensive, with significant U.S. investment in China and significant bilateral trade.  There is considerable bilateral tension with issues dealing with the South and East China seas.  China’s declaration of the nine dash line and its claimed sovereignty over this expansive area has resulted in international condemnation and a U.S. commitment to ensure these sea lanes remain open.  Friction of reported Chinese Cyber intrusions into U.S. public and private entities recently resulted in a bilateral Cyber Agreement, signed by Presidents Obama and Xi that neither country will use cyber to steal the intellectual property and trade secrets of the other country.

The Xi Jinping administration in Beijing is ensuring that the Communist Party not only controls the gun, but remains dominant in all aspects of China’s peaceful rise.  That means the middle class will grow and economic progress will continue to be key priorities.  It also means that the security services will continue to play a dominant role in all aspects of Chinese society, to ensure stability.  The lessons of the  160 years of humiliation, from the Opium War of 1841 to liberation in 1949, followed by internal upheaval with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution,  which resonate with the people, is that when China is weak, militarily and from within, foreign entities will exploit a weak and vulnerable  China.  The late Ming period, when corruption and decadence made imperial China vulnerable to subjugation by the warrior Manchus and the imposition of the Qing Dynasty in 1647, is contemporary history for which all Chinese students are familiar.  Thus Nationalism speaks to the pride with which many Chinese view China’s economic rise and its assertive military.

These historical realities speak to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, which prosecuted over 16 senior government officials and over 1,500 less senior officials.  Appointing a noted senior Chinese official, Wang Qishan, to head this campaign was testament to Xi’s commitment to make this a successful campaign.    Indeed, this campaign resonates with the people.  Xi Jinping’s assertive policies in the South China Sea also resonates with the people, given their historical humiliation by foreign entities and by its weak military and inability to repel foreign invaders.

Although I believe the South and East china seas probably are negotiable, what is not negotiable are China’s core interests – Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.  Any leader in China who negotiates these issues would be replaced.

China’s leaders will continue to modernize its military, while devoting significant resources on domestic security.  According to recent pronouncements from Beijing, foreign non-governmental agencies will be monitored to ensure these entities do not interfere in China’s domestic affairs. 

Past dealings with China tells us clearly that the government will cooperate with the U.S. and others if it’s in China’s interest.  Lecturing China doesn’t work. 

This piece is based upon a presentation before FPRI’s Competitive Soft Power and Engagement Seminar held in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2016.

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