GIVEN all the hoopla of President Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, the opening on the same day of a new American not-quite-an-embassy in Taipei was never going to hog the headlines. Yet to judge by how much Chinese officials have harangued American diplomats and congressmen about who was going to attend the ceremony in Taiwan’s capital, China appears to care every bit as much and perhaps more about America’s actions in Taiwan than about geopolitical rivalry on the Korean peninsula.
Since 1979, when America broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan in order to open them with China, its “one-China policy” has been the bedrock of dealings with China. This means never referring to Taiwan as a country and always “acknowledging” that both China and Taiwan hold to the idea that there is but one China, even if the two sides disagree over the definition. The fudge has allowed America to enjoy close unofficial relations with Taiwan. China rarely appeared bothered by America’s unofficial representation in Taipei, known as the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). For a long time it was housed in a dingy former military building in an unprepossessing part of the city.
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The new building unveiled on June 12th, in contrast, is a design icon in the fancy district of Neihu. It cost $250m. It looks, smells and feels just like a formal embassy. Most of its nearly 500 staff are American diplomats, albeit on temporary leave from the State Department. It issues visas. The Trump administration has considered sending marines to guard it.
To China, which wants everyone to act as if Taiwan belongs to it, the new building is provocative. So, too, is a piece of legislation, the Taiwan Travel Act, passed unanimously by Congress and signed in March by Mr Trump, which encourages exchanges between American and Taiwanese officials. China has stressed that a high-level official at the opening would jeopardise talks on trade as well as co-operation over North Korea. China’s nightmare was the attendance of Mr Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton. He has called for America to “revisit” its one-China policy.
In the event, the administration kept the opening low-key, if only so as not to distract attention from the Singapore summit. The most senior American official present was Marie Royce, a mere assistant secretary of state (and also the spouse of a pro-Taiwan congressman). During the proceedings, America’s de facto ambassador, Kin Moy, bowed three times before a table laden with fruit and flowers and then lit incense. “I offer you this [building], a tangible symbol that the United States is here to stay,” Mr Moy told President Tsai Ing-wen and assembled guests. The AIT chairman, James Moriarty, described democratic Taiwan as a “model for the Indo-Pacific region” and promised continued American support for “Taiwan’s ability to defend itself”. Mr Trump has approved $1.4bn in arms sales.
China no doubt sees the building’s 99-year lease as yet another provocation. Xi Jinping, who recently awarded himself an unlimited lease on China’s presidency, insists that Taiwan’s return to the motherland cannot wait for ever. But whether China will pick a fight over Taiwan now is another matter. It is not clear that Mr Trump cares for the island, except as a pawn in trade negotiations with China. He is said to have criticised State Department speeches in support of Taiwan as complicating his dealings with Mr Xi. And he did not send Mr Bolton. Bonnie Glaser of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an American think-tank, reckons that China is getting less anxious.
Pressure only grows on Ms Tsai, however. China has put Taiwan in the doghouse since she came to office two years ago. Though she has gone out of her way not to antagonise, she will not acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China. And she has failed to condemn her prime minister, William Lai Ching-te, who has professed to be a “Taiwan independence worker”.
Official relations across the Taiwan Strait are frozen. China denies Taiwan a seat at international forums such as the World Health Organisation. It bullies international airlines and hotel groups into referring to the country as a mere region of China. In April it put on the biggest naval exercises ever carried out in the South China Sea, followed by live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait. Chinese bombers circle the island. Meanwhile, diplomatic allies peel off. In May the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso switched sides, leaving just 18 countries that recognise Taiwan.
And yet. The more China closes Taiwan’s diplomatic space, the more Ms Tsai’s creative use of unofficial diplomacy grows. Her “New Southbound Policy” attempts to forge deeper ties with South-East Asian neighbours and beyond, including those caught up in disputes with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. (Taiwan also claims much of the sea, but is far less pushy about it.)
The scope of the policy is broad, ranging from promoting tourism to easing the plight of migrant workers to investing in manufacturing (Taiwan ranks well ahead of China in investment in Vietnam, for example). The emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region is bearing fruit. Merriden Varrall and Charlie Lyons Jones of the Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney, say that Australia’s interest in the New Southbound Policy contrasts sharply with its wait-and-see approach to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Japan has signed a memorandum on search-and-rescue operations with Taiwan, bolstering its maritime security; intelligence-sharing may be formalised next. And Taiwanese officials are increasingly being invited to regional dialogues on the Indo-Pacific organised by think-tanks. Taiwan does not enjoy being chastised by China. But, as Ms Varrall and Mr Jones suggest, China also does not realise quite how counter-productive its approach is.