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Tsai Ing-wen’s U.S. Transit Stops in Historical Context

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Tsai Ing-wen’s U.S. Transit Stops in Historical Context

Unofficial transit stops by Taiwan leaders in the U.S. have some interesting history.

Tsai Ing-wen’s U.S. Transit Stops in Historical Context
Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

State visits are the pinnacle of diplomatic ceremony and the utmost expression of friendly bilateral relations between countries. Their pomp and circumstance – the 21-gun salutes, state dinners, and cultural events – confer honor and respect upon the visiting head of state and his or her country. The symbolic power of state visits makes them a much-prized asset in international relations. But for the Republic of China (R.O.C. or Taiwan), which is only recognized by 22 small countries, there is something more important: unofficial presidential transit stops in the United States.

Late last month, Tsai Ing-wen made her first transit stop in the U.S. since being sworn in as Taiwan’s new president on May 20. The low-key affair demonstrated consistency in U.S. Taiwan policy and protocol following an historic power-shift in Taiwan that has given the country’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party the presidency and a solid majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan. The business-as-usual feel of Tsai’s first transit stop is significant in that it shows how, after more than twenty years, transit stops have become institutionalized practice in U.S.-Taiwan relations.

The Bumpy Road to Institutionalization

Ever since the U.S. severed official relations with the Republic of China in 1979, U.S. officials have been keenly aware of the potential for unofficial interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan to be misinterpreted by Beijing. In May 1994, a cautious Clinton administration permitted then-R.O.C. President Lee Teng-hui’s plane to make a two-hour refueling stop in Hawaii as the Taiwanese leader made his way to Nicaragua. Although Lee was greeted (on his plane) by the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the private, non-profit organization tasked with handling day-to-day relations between the U.S. government and Taiwan, the pit-stop was a far cry from the overnight stay that Lee had requested. Nevertheless, a year later, Lee became the first – and to date only – sitting R.O.C. president of the post-1979 era to make a private visit (not a transit stop) to the United States.

The Clinton administration, facing considerable pressure from Congress to let Lee visit the U.S., reluctantly decided, in late May 1995, to issue a visa to Taiwan’s president so that he could attend his graduate school reunion at Cornell University that June. Lee was allowed a three-day visit to the U.S., during which he gave a speech at his alma mater that many people, Chinese officials included, viewed as highly political in nature. The unprecedented visit fed Beijing’s fears that the U.S. and Taiwan were bent on changing the cross-Strait status quo. Ultimately, the visit proved a major factor in precipitating the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the tensest period in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations since the 1960s.

Subsequent to Lee’s Cornell visit, the U.S. government began to regularize R.O.C. presidential transit stops in the U.S. However, regularization progressed haltingly due to the high level of tension that existed in cross-Strait relations from the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis until the end of Lee’s successor Chen Shui-bian’s second term in office.

Chen’s first transit stop in the U.S. occurred only three months into his presidency. He made a brief stopover in Los Angeles during which he was scheduled to meet with U.S. congressmen. Chen ended up declining the meeting at the request of the Clinton administration, which was concerned that the high-profile gathering might raise Beijing’s ire. The moderation that Chen exhibited early in his presidency earned him an unprecedented two-day transit stop in New York on his way to Latin America in May 2001 and a one-day transit stop in Houston on his return trip to Taiwan. The stopover in New York was considered an especially prestigious honor. While in the city, Chen – with the approval of the George W. Bush administration – met with several members of Congress and New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani. The Taiwanese leader also visited Wall Street and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, Chen’s relations with the Bush administration eventually soured as the R.O.C. president began to ignore his U.S. partner’s advice and took certain actions that exacerbated the discord in cross-Strait relations.

In May 2006, the Bush administration rejected Chen’s request for transit stops in San Francisco and New York for his trip to Latin America and instead, at the last minute, offered him stops in Honolulu and Anchorage. Chen, clearly humiliated and aware that his unofficial relationship with Washington had suffered a serious blow, declined the counter-offer. The Taiwanese leader only obtained transit stops in the contiguous U.S. one more time during his presidency. After that, he settled for refueling stops in Alaska in August 2007 and January 2008.

The election of the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s new president in March 2008 and the change in the U.S. leadership in January 2009 afforded the U.S. a prime opportunity to reset its unofficial relations with Taiwan. The Obama administration kept Ma’s transit stops within the bounds of what had been offered to Chen early on in his presidency. On Ma’s first state trip, in August 2008, he transited through Los Angeles on his way to Paraguay and the Dominican Republic. He then made a refueling stop in Austin and stayed the night in San Francisco on his return to Taiwan. The Taiwanese leader made a conscious effort to keep a very low-profile during his initial transit stops in the U.S., but he still managed to meet with more than a dozen members of Congress and host a banquet for overseas Taiwanese. During the course of Ma’s two terms as president, he made several more transit flights through the U.S. without eliciting any significant protests from Beijing. Moreover, the U.S. never felt the need to limit Ma’s transits to refueling stops in Alaska or Hawaii as it had at times with Lee and Chen.

Although great progress was made toward regularizing R.O.C. presidential transit stops during Ma’s eight years in office, the stops could not be said to be fully institutionalized practice at the end of his presidency as one important milestone had not yet been reached. The U.S. still needed to demonstrate to Taipei and Beijing that it would continue to allow the next R.O.C. president to make transit stops of the same level of prestige as those permitted Ma so long as, like Ma, the next president made an effort to maintain peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations and cooperate with the U.S. That milestone was reached last month when the U.S. allowed Tsai, a politician who Beijing may dislike, but who has nonetheless exhibited respect for cross-Strait relations, to make her first transit stop in the U.S.

Quiet Continuity

At an event hosted by the Brookings Institution last July, AIT Chairman Raymond Burghardt gave a vivid portrayal of how far U.S.-Taiwan relations had come over the preceding seven years. Speaking about a pleasant visit he had had with Ma Ying-jeou during the Taiwanese leader’s recent transit stop in Boston, Burghardt reminisced, “That transit stop – the weather was warm, the mood was warm. It was a very friendly day and a half […].” Burghardt contrasted that “friendly day” with his experience meeting with Chen Shui-bian during Chen’s last transit stop in the U.S. stating, “We were on the tarmac in Anchorage, Alaska, and the transit stop never left the airport. And it was Anchorage, Alaska, and here’s a key point – it was in January. So, we want to continue to have these kind of strong relations with Taiwan.” Tsai’s first transit stop in the U.S. clearly signaled the continuation of the warm U.S.-Taiwan unofficial relations of the Ma years rather than a return to the frigid final days of Chen’s presidency.

The new R.O.C. president made a 24-hour transit stop in Miami late last month en route to Panama and Paraguay – two of Taiwan’s last remaining allies. During her brief stay in Miami, Tsai met with AIT Managing Director Joe Donovan; U.S. Senator Marco Rubio; Representatives Gregg Harper and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; and Miami Marlins’ pitcher and Taiwanese national Chen Wei-yin. Similar to Ma’s first transit stop, Tsai hosted a banquet for Taiwanese expats the night of her arrival. On Tsai’s return to Taiwan, she stopped over in Los Angeles where she met with AIT Chairman Burghardt, and took part in a banquet attended by several U.S. Representatives. Taiwan’s new president also had phone conversations with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan during her second stopover.

While Tsai’s transit stops are important symbolically because they show the consistency of U.S. Taiwan policy and the good state of U.S.-Taiwan unofficial relations, their importance to the day-to-day business of U.S.-Taiwan relations should not be overestimated. Alan Romberg, Distinguished Fellow and the Director of the East Asia Program at Washington think tank the Stimson Center, sees nothing particularly special about Tsai’s transit stop itinerary. “The U.S. has quite smooth and frequent communication not only with other senior Taiwan officials but with Tsai, herself,” says Romberg. In fact, Taiwanese news media reported last month that U.S. and R.O.C. defense officials held their annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Review Talks just days before Tsai arrived in Miami. Therefore, since Washington and Taipei are capable of settling their business without the presidential transit stops, the now-routine practice can be expected to continue only so long as Taiwan and the U.S. feel that the stops hold sufficient symbolic value to further their interests. Considering that states the world over still believe it is worthwhile to spend significant economic and diplomatic resources on the pageantry of state visits, it seems that the relatively modest transit flights will probably continue for quite some time.

Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based researcher. He is the founder and executive editor of and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. Kristian earned his M.A. in international affairs from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and his B.A. in international relations from University of the Pacific’s School of International Studies. You can reach Kristian at [email protected] and view Taiwan Security Research’s Facebook page at .