Strictly speaking, this article is about a new building complex of the so called American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which from 1979, the year when Washington severed diplomatic ties with Taipei, serves as a de facto US embassy (but with a status of a non-commercial organization).
$260 million has been spent on the construction of the new AIT office. Washington could only have allocated such an impressive amount on an enterprise that is in line with its top national interests (as viewed by the US elite). These interests are increasingly determined by its global rivalry with China, which is quite complex in nature, involving all the aspects in transnational relations such as politics, economy and military activity. This rivalry manifests itself in its most severe form (at times involving a direct political and military confrontation) on a fairly narrow strip of land, adjoining PRC’s eastern provinces.
In recent times, the situation involving Taiwan has intensified and many observers have been nervously awaiting the inauguration date, set for 12 June of this year, of the new AIT complex, long under construction in Taipei.
Only 2 to 3 months before, at the peak of heightened tensions in the Sino-American bilateral trade relations (and also, most likely, with the view of pressuring Beijing in the new game on the Korean Peninsula), reports, that talked about the possibility of one of the highest-ranking US officials being present at the previously mentioned inauguration in Taipei, started circulating. These reports mentioned Vice President Michael Pence or the US National Security Advisor (the Uber-Hawk) John Bolton. Their presence at the inauguration would have been a direct challenge to Beijing thus eliminating all the hopes of containing the escalating Sino-American relations within certain limits with a turn for the better a distinct possibility.
The relationship between the two world leaders had almost reached this dangerous point of no return even before Donald Trump officially became the US President, when Trump deemed a phone conversation with his Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen, who had congratulated him on being elected as the US leader, as appropriate.
Immediately afterwards, Washington offered justifications for its actions, whose aim was to confirm the US intentions to support the critically important principal to PRC of “One-China policy”. This helped extinguish the conflict in its infancy.
However, the appearance of state officials of Michael Pence’s or John Bolton’s rank in Taipei for, to make matters worse, an opening of a new building complex that de facto houses the US Embassy just one and a half years afterwards, points to the fact that the previously mentioned justifications are not worth a dime. After all, it is worth reiterating that PRC views Taiwan as an integral part of its territories, which for “historical reasons” is not currently under Beijing’s control. This is what, in principle, distinguishes the Chinese leadership’s reaction towards the US maneuvers in Taiwan from that towards both Koreas, whose sovereignty is not in any doubt.
In the meantime, Taipei has prepared for visits by American officials of any rank by enacting the H.R.535-Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) since March of this year. If high-ranking state officials such as Michael Pence or John Bolton take advantage of this law, such an act could be viewed as crossing “red line” in the context of the Sino-American relations.
PRC reacts one way or the other in response to much less substantial provocations that are viewed by the Chinese as a violation of “One-China policy”. At the end of April this year, such an incitement, for instance, was the appearance of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, labelled as sovereign states, on the websites of some US airlines.
Still, both world powers have so far, clearly, aimed to avoid that point of no return in their bilateral relations, despite their mutual provocative rhetoric, which has been especially vociferous in the sphere of trade and economy in the last few months.
Despite using strong language, along the line of China needing to be threatened with a “trade bat” (for “robbing the US blind”), the US-China negotiations continue and their aim, from Washington’s perspective, is to encourage Beijing to adapt practical measures in order to reduce its giant trade deficit with China.
Estimated losses (approximately $50 billion), which each side will sustain after the mutual imposition of tariffs (expected in July of this year) on a number of imported goods, are, in all likelihood, more symbolic in nature. The US President’s statement about the possibility of raising the tariffs on imported Chinese goods to $200 billion have not been followed by any real measures.
This strategy of “methodically jabbing” its chief geopolitical opponent also involves the presence of a middle ranked US official at the inauguration ceremony dedicated to the AIT opening, which means that, in this case, “the Washington fencer” had decided to simply “scratch” his opponent.
Still, the number of such “scratches” is increasing. Other provocations include the increasingly frequent intrusions by the US warships into the 12-mile zone around the artificial islands, created by PRC in the South China Sea, talk about the possibility of dispatching an aircraft carrier fleet to the Taiwan Strait, and not inviting China to the summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
We would like to remind the readers that, de facto, China was one of the main participants in the Korean War (1950-1953) and has, by and large, encouraged Pyongyang to radically change its course at this stage in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
In addition, Beijing cannot possibly view favorably the fact that President Tsai Ing-wen hosted the head of the ATI institute and the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce during the 4-day visit by the US delegation to Taipei to mark the opening of AIT. The hostess expressed her confidence in “a closer working relationship with the USA on defense as well as other spheres”.
Overall, the inauguration ceremony to mark the opening of AIT in Taiwan has poured oil on the fire, which is engulfing the current Sino-American relations, but measurably so, hence it still remains contained.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific Region issues, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”