Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

Diplomacy Under Different Rules: How an NGO Dictates American Diplomacy in Taiwan

A primer on the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), and how it influences the delicate China-Taiwan-U.S. triangle.

Diplomacy Under Different Rules: How an NGO Dictates American Diplomacy in Taiwan

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of AIT, Apr. 15, 2019.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

It’s not often that American diplomats must resign from the State Department to take up a diplomatic post. But for diplomats posted at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), these were, for a very long time, the rules of diplomatic engagement. AIT was the unofficial purgatory of unofficial diplomacy.

Diplomats can now keep their State Department affiliations when they move to Taipei, but the stories of AIT’s veteran diplomatic and local staff members carry a lesson still true of its diplomats of today: Diplomacy in Taiwan is conducted with different rules.

These rules are constraining, often painfully so for those that work there. Despite the institutional constraints imposed on AIT, sometimes described as the de facto embassy in Taiwan, its staffers have found creative ways to allow the Taiwan-U.S. relationship to flourish – and maintain a precarious cross-strait status quo.

How do these diplomats do it? And what does this mean for the broader relationship? New AIT Director Sandra Oudkirk, who assumed control earlier this summer, has taken the reins of one of the most important – but least understood – institutions within China-Taiwan-U.S. triangular relationship.

With this change in leadership, we review three key areas to explore how American diplomats have previously navigated the complex waters of Taiwan-U.S. relations: the nomenclature of AIT, Taiwan’s international participation and high-level visits, and public diplomacy and people-to-people ties.

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The Nomenclature of AIT

The name AIT in and of itself is an indicator of the constraints the institution and American diplomats serving in Taiwan face. AIT is not an embassy; it is an institute, an explicitly non-governmental organization. This change in status away from formal relations, beginning in 1979, has since placed restrictions on diplomatic actions ranging from visas, to positions within the office, to official language.

A diplomatic presence disguised as an NGO, AIT has created its own positions that mirror those of a traditional embassy. For example, the director of AIT replaces the ambassador; the deputy director fills the role of the deputy chief of mission (DCM). These everyday diplomatic terms have been replaced by NGO-speak.

AIT must also tread carefully when describing its relationship with Taiwan. Diplomats cannot use the term “Taiwanese” in their discourse but can refer to the strong friendship between the people of Taiwan and the people of the United States.

In a particularly ironic move, U.S. diplomats celebrated the strength of the relationship on the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The 40th anniversary marked the beginning of unofficial relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, with the United States ending its official relationship and instead recognizing China. At AIT, promoting the relationship can require significant framing.

The terminology challenges American diplomats continue to face were reflected in an official statement the AIT spokesperson gave us:

Working at AIT is a challenging and fulfilling opportunity to be involved in supporting one of our most important relationships on a daily basis. We believe in deepening our engagement and connections with the people of Taiwan consistent with our ‘one China’ policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act,  Six Assurances, and Joint Communiques.

We will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait relations consistent with the wishes and best interests of the Taiwan people. We urge Beijing to cease its provocative military, diplomatic, economic pressure against Taiwan, and instead to engage in meaningful dialogue. We have an abiding interest in peace and security across the Taiwan Strait and consider this central to the security and stability of the broader Indo-Pacific region.

The AIT spokesperson is careful to emphasize connections to the people of Taiwan, but explicitly framed within the broad status quo agreed to by the United States and China. As the statement exemplifies, the discourse between the United States and Taiwan is restricted but warm, while the language used between the United States and China is institutionally unrestricted but increasingly terse.

Taiwan’s International Participation and High-Level Visits

Taiwan is denied participation in international organizations due to China’s insistence on the “one China” principle. The U.S., following its “one China” policy, takes no position on the status of Taiwan. As such, the U.S., and AIT, continue to encourage Taiwan’s participation on the world stage such as at the World Health Assembly. AIT not only actively uses social media to encourage Taiwan’s attendance at international meetings and events, but also uses the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) to promote international cooperation with Taiwan.

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GCTF, hosted in collaboration with Taiwan and the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, serves as a platform to highlight Taiwan’s expertise on relevant issues with international partners. Recent sessions included training on green energy and sustainability, intellectual property (IP) protection, and supply chain restructuring. This training framework is emblematic of the ways in which AIT seeks to mitigate constraints on Taiwan and support Taiwan diplomatically without disrupting the status quo.

U.S. embassies are accustomed to hosting delegations of State Department officials, members of congress, and other high-level officials. However, in Taiwan, these high-level visits have reflected the delicate balance of bringing meaningful individuals to show support for the Taiwan relationship, but not visitors who are so politically important that they invoke a dangerous response from China. For instance, in 2018, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce attended the opening ceremony of the new AIT campus in Neihu.

Recently, AIT has welcomed a number of ground-breaking visitors. In May, Senators Chris Coons, Tammy Duckworth, and Dan Sullivan visited Taiwan and met with former AIT Director Brent Christensen. The senators landed at the Songshan Airport in the middle of Taipei in a military aircraft. The imagery of the senators on the tarmac sent a convincing message that Taiwan-U.S. relations are strong and strengthening. As the institution on the ground, AIT served as a prominent interlocutor for the trailblazing visit.

Public Diplomacy and People-to-People Ties

AIT’s public diplomacy section, responsible for communicating with Taiwan’s public, has developed a strong social media presence. Its social media has largely focused on embracing Taiwan’s local culture and holidays but has also engaged in a subtle yet strong anti-disinformation campaign against China. Beginning around 2018, Taiwan found itself at the frontlines of China’s disinformation wars, a campaign that has included attempts to influence Taiwan’s elections and spread COVID-19 misinformation. In response, AIT shared a series of online posts and videos aimed at improving news literacy and identifying misinformation.

Among the more humorous and light-hearted of these was a series called “Bubba’s English Corner,” starring an English Language Fellow teaching at the National Taipei University of Education. The series appears to take a light-hearted tone, with humorous animations of Bubba descending upon the AIT building in an alien spaceship or appearing at the strike of lightning.

But the videos also perform an essential diplomatic task: assisting Taiwan in its battle against disinformation, and though never mentioned explicitly, particularly those fake news stories sponsored by the Chinese government. Through this heightened social media presence, AIT has simultaneously encouraged engagement by Taiwan’s public with the United States’ diplomatic presence in Taiwan, encouraged English-language learning, and countered hostile advances by the Chinese government in China – all while never mentioning China or making any claim about cross-strait relations.

The challenges and opportunities for people-to-people ties extend into AIT’s consular section. Despite no formal diplomatic ties, the United States and Taiwan have a robust relationship and nearly 24,000 students from Taiwan studied in the United States during the 2019-2020 academic year. The United States and Taiwan also have a visa waiver program allowing visitors to stay in the United States for up to 90 days with no visa. However, when it comes to diplomatic visas, there are unique rules consular officers must adhere to, such as never placing U.S. visas in Taiwan diplomatic passports.

The Future of AIT and China-Taiwan-U.S. Triangular Relations

While AIT is a unique American diplomatic institution, Taiwan has employed similar models of diplomacy around the world and is represented in the United States by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). Lithuania, meanwhile, recently established its own AIT-style representative office for Taiwan, causing a rift with Beijing. The unofficial rules of diplomacy apply to most diplomatic encounters for Taiwan around the globe.

However, AIT in particular will play a central and heightened role in China-U.S. great power competition. The United States and China emerge from COVID-19 in a much changed, and much colder, geopolitical environment, with Taiwan’s cloudy future looming large. Individual diplomats working at AIT will have the agency to help determine and coordinate which American statespeople will visit Taiwan, which messages will be distributed on social media, and how to empower Taiwan to engage with international organizations without shattering a delicate status quo and understanding between the United States and China. And the arsenal of AIT’s diplomats may increase along with heightened Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

As Taiwan becomes seen as an increasingly important policy flashpoint to both the U.S. government and public, however, diplomats working within AIT in Taipei and Kaohsiung will lose some of their agency to Congress, State Department leadership, and other members of the Biden administration. As AIT becomes more constrained by the powerful in Washington, yet the stakes of the relationship grow higher, it will need to further innovate its diplomatic toolbox.