Taiwan avoided a brewing domestic controversy this week after a planned visit by Kelly Craft, the outgoing United States ambassador to the United Nations, was called off at the last minute.
The planned three-day visit was canceled, along with all foreign travel by executive officials serving under President Donald Trump, in the wake of the deadly invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled his own European trip after being snubbed by top officials in Luxembourg and the European Union, Reuters reported.
Taiwan, which relies heavily on its unofficial alliance with the United States, was prepared to host Craft anyway and likely had little room to snub a visiting U.S. official, even one set to be replaced within the week, when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20.
Still, Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang (KMT) had used the planned visit to criticize the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), alleging it was being overly deferential to the U.S. by planning to host Craft.
KMT legislator Alex Fai caused a stir last week by describing Craft as an unwelcome guest, while other officials questioned the need for the trip and former President Ma Ying-jeou labeled it a “superficial gesture” planned by the U.S. to “rile China.”
The plans did indeed anger Beijing, which warned the U.S. it was playing with fire by sending Craft to Taipei.
In the end, Craft instead participated in a phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who said her country would continue seeking access to U.N. venues such as the World Health Assembly.
Taiwan has been excluded from the United Nations since 1971, when the U.N. stopped recognizing its Republic of China (ROC) government in favor of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing. In recent years, Beijing has escalated its objections to Taiwan participating in U.N. events as an observer, or even allowing holders of Taiwanese passports to enter U.N. buildings.
KMT politicians had complained that a visit by Craft should be part of a sustained effort for Taiwan to push for U.N. membership – a position Craft has not publicly supported.
The KMT began charting a policy shift in October by passing resolutions supporting formal ties between Taiwan and the United States. The resolutions encourage Taiwan to push the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself against Chinese threats and to push for formal diplomatic ties with the U.S. as an eventual goal of diplomatic efforts between Taipei and Washington.
It remains unclear, however, if these resolutions were a true course change by the Beijing-friendly party or an effort to sabotage the DPP’s efforts at strengthening Taiwan’s bonds with the United States.
The canceled visit came one week after Pompeo announced he would eliminate internal rules governing contacts between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, saying the restrictions had been implemented “in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing.”
Under the rules, which had been updated annually, U.S. officials were prevented from doing things like referring to Taiwan as a “country” and displaying the ROC flag on U.S. government or military property.
The announcement was welcomed by the DPP government. Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s representative in Washington, said on Twitter that it represented “decades of discrimination, removed.”
Keith Krach, the U.S. undersecretary of state who visited Taiwan in September, said this week Pompeo’s decision gives Taiwan “free country status.”
An article by Michael J. Green, Bonnie S. Glaser, and Richard Bush and published Friday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues otherwise, saying the “capricious and dubious way this decision was unveiled” could leave Taipei vulnerable, and may have been intended primarily as an attempt to burden the Biden administration.
“Taiwan’s liberal democracy can only survive in an ecosystem of rules and norms that the administration has badly damaged,” the authors write. “This last-minute move will not change any of that.”