by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: US State Department/Public Domain

WITH LESS THAN two weeks left before the transition of power between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the Trump administration surprised on Wednesday by announcing that Kelly Craft, America’s ambassador to the UN, will visit Taiwan. The trip was announced by American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Part of what was unexpected about the sudden announcement was that the trip would have to take place within the next two weeks if it was to take place before Biden is sworn into office; subsequently, it was announced that Craft would visit Taiwan between January 13th and January 15th, more or less one week before Biden’s presidential inauguration on January 20th. As with other recent American diplomatic visits to Taiwan, Craft will be allowed to skip the fourteen-day quarantine period imposed on travelers, and an exception will be made for the fact that Taiwan’s borders are currently closed for non-resident foreigners.

US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft (left) and Secretary of State Mike Pomeo (right). Photo credit: US State Department/Public Domain

Indeed, the timing of the trip is further unusual since it was announced only one day after an attempted occupation of the US Capitol by Trump supporters. Trump supporters broke into the US Capitol after Trump gave a speech outside the White House urging supporters to go to the Capitol

Taiwan has seen a number of diplomatic visits from high-ranking Trump administration officials over the past year. This included a four-day visit to Taiwan by American Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar in August last year, as well as a visit in September by US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach. The Azar visit was conducted on the premises of the US learning from Taiwan’s COVID-19 response. The Krach visit was originally conducted on the premises of a dialogue on trade, though for reasons that are still opaque, this was later abruptly changed to paying respects to Lee Teng-hui after his death in July. These visits were understood as historic in nature, seeing as US diplomatic visits to Taiwan have not occurred with such high-ranking American officials in decades.

The Trump administration previously suggested that it might send another high-ranking official to Taiwan before the end of its term after its defeat in November 2020 elections, intimating in late November that it might send Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler. Plans for this visit were scrapped after criticisms of the expenses of the trip. But by contrast to the Craft visit, the Azar and Krach visits were telegraphed far in advance, as was the Wheeler visit.

That is, the Craft visit was announced as a response to recent events in Hong Kong, specifically the arrest of fifty pro-democracy politicians that had participated in the pan-Democratic primaries to determine the 2020 legislative candidates of the pan-Democratic camp. Sending Craft to Taiwan is to express American displeasure at the deterioration of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.

In this sense, the Craft visit does not represent any upgrading of relations between the US and Taiwan, as the Azar and Krach visits were framed as being. Instead, the Craft visit reflects a last-minute attempt by the Trump administration to hit back at China using both Taiwan and Hong Kong. This has always been the danger underlying strengthening US-Taiwan relations, or moves by the US aimed at assisting Hong Kong, in that the underlying political motive is simply to use Taiwan and Hong Kong as issues with which to attack China, rather than to genuinely aid Taiwan or Hong Kong.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump (center). Photo credit: White House/Public Domain

Consequently, the Craft visit cheapens the impact of the previous Azar and Krach visits, suggesting that both previous visits also stemmed from a desire to quickly hit back at China, rather than substantive growth in developing closer relations between the US and Taiwan.

It may not be surprising, then, that Pompeo’s framing of the rationale for sending Craft to Taiwan framed Taiwan as “free China” in juxtaposition to the PRC, stating that “Taiwan shows what a free China could achieve.” Much support for Taiwan on the part of supposed Republican allies simply returns to this desire to juxtapose Taiwan to China or suggest that Taiwan poses some vision of China democratizing—never mind that the US backed Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorial regime in Taiwan for decades.

One also notes that the Craft visit does absolutely nothing to assist Hongkongers, who would perhaps benefit more concretely, say, from US policies to assist asylum applications to America. Despite vitriolic rhetoric against China by Trump and other Republicans, such measures are unlikely to come from the Trump administration. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who supported Trump’s push to invalidate electoral college results and has otherwise been vocally critical of China, recently shot down a bill that would have assisted Hongkongers seeking asylum in the US, claiming that Chinese spies could mix in with Hongkongers. This more broadly illustrates how Taiwan and Hong Kong serve as convenient ways for America to attack China—but when push comes to shove, Taiwanese and Hongkongers are objects of suspicion little different from Chinese for Republicans as Cruz or Trump.

Either way, the Craft visit is likely to be welcomed with fanfare by Taiwan, both because many segments of society will be uncritical of the visit, and because the Taiwanese government has little option but to openly accept any and all diplomatic visits from the US with open arms in order to maintain relations with the US. As a diplomatic visit announced shortly before the transition to the Biden administration, the Craft visit can be interpreted as one of the Trump administration’s last-minute moves aimed at ensuring that the Biden administration cannot rapidly reverse course on its China policy, inclusive of arms sales with Taiwan announced in December.

President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

Although Taiwan still remains wary of the Biden administration’s China policy, with many in Taiwan viewing Biden’s China policy as unclear and traditional suspicion of Democrats pervasive among the pan-Green camp, it is currently in the awkward position of hoping to build substantive ties with the incoming Biden administration while also hoping to benefit from unpredictable, last-minute moves by the Trump administration that could boost Taiwan’s diplomatic standing. This would be one of many reasons that the Tsai administration was restrained in its public responses to the attempted occupation of the US Capitol, although most world leaders were condemnatory of the action—another reason would be fear by Tsai of offending members of the pan-Green camp that have embraced conspiratorial fear-mongering about the Biden administration.

It is to be questioned whether there will be any last-minute curveballs from the Trump administration with less than fourteen days in office—certainly, given the past few days’ events, anything seems possible. At the same time, with Trump increasingly marginalized in the wake of the occupation of the US Capitol, moves by the Trump administration that could benefit Taiwan will broadly be perceived as part of desperate, erratic behavior by Trump in his last days in office and Taiwan may not benefit from the continued association with Trump. Yet it remains to be seen whether the Tsai administration is cognizant of that fact.

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