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.