Diplomatic Pouch / October 12, 2015
By Larry Luxner
It is, perhaps, the ultimate irony of Embassy Row that the country which regularly throws the biggest, most lavish National Day party in town is one of the few on Earth lacking diplomatic relations with the United States.
Yet Taiwan seems to revel in that paradox. On Oct. 7, more than 3,000 people filled the sprawling grounds of Washington’s historic Twin Oaks Estate to celebrate not one but two anniversaries: 104 years since the founding of the Republic of China, and 70 since the end of World War II.
“Today, it’s our sacred right and obligation to honor this anniversary,” said Lyushun Shen, chief of Taiwan’s equivalent of an embassy, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) — following the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner by Shelly Su and Taiwan’s national anthem by Jason Ma.
“Seventy years ago, Taiwan was still under Japanese rule, even though the Japanese had announced their surrender on Aug. 15, 1945,” Shen explained. “But the ROC authorities didn’t arrive in Taiwan to accept the surrender until Oct. 25. The people of Taiwan couldn’t wait, so they got together to hold rallies, sing patriotic songs and raise our flag to celebrate our very first National Day — even though Taiwan was still technically under Japanese rule.”
No less than 15 members of Congress — one senator and 14 representatives — listened attentively as Shen publicly thanked “the country that helped us survive the war and stay with us every stage of our national development.” He paid special tribute to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1943 met secretly with Winston Churchill and Chinese national hero Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and later signed the Cairo Declaration, “which provided the very foundation for Taiwan’s return to the Republic of China.”
FDR also authorized the formation of American volunteer pilot squadrons to go to China to help the general fight the Japanese invaders. These were the famous Flying Tigers — honored by a replica of one of their P-40 planes that graced the expansive Twin Oaks lawn as Shen spoke.
“Altogether, the Flying Tigers shot down 2,600 enemy airplanes, and because of this, air superiority changed hanged and millions of Chinese civilian lives were saved from Japanese mass bombings,” said the diplomat. “And those lives probably include those of your parents and mine.”
Taiwan and the United States have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter broke them and recognized the People’s Republic of China instead. Today, only 21 countries — mainly in Central America, the Caribbean and Africa — plus the Vatican have full diplomatic ties with the ROC.
Even so, Taiwan is “a beacon of democracy in Asia, and an economic powerhouse” that today ranks as the tenth largest trading partner of the United States.
“Things changed in 1979, but both sides now publicly acknowledge that our mutual relations have never been better,” he said. “Earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Taiwan is a key component of U.S. Asia-Pacific policy, including the Asia rebalance.”
Shen noted that, despite the political difficulties involved in making transit visits to the United States, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou — who served as mayor of Taipei from 1998 to 2006 — made 17 such visits in his seven and a half years in office.
“That far exceeds any of his predecessors,” said the TECRO chief. “And for each of these transits, he was warmly welcomed by U.S. senators, members of Congress, mayors and other leaders. And he’s the only ROC president who has visited both of his alma maters, New York University and Harvard.”
During Ma’s time in office, he said, the number of agreements between the United States has jumped from 90 to 147 — including a long-sought visa waiver that will benefit all holders of Taiwanese passports. The first year after the visa waiver was signed, he noted, the number of ROC citizens visiting the United States jumped by 40 percent.
Today, he said, some half a million Taiwanese come here on vacation, “and our tourists are also very serious shoppers who buy American.”
Also crucial is a 2013 accord on the privileges and immunities for diplomatic personnel stationed in each other’s countries. “Now we can enjoy those beautiful license plates issued by the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions,” he joked.
More importantly, the number of countries that offer ROC passport holders visa-free status now stands at 153, compared to 54 when Ma took office.
“As our mutual trust grows, the U.S. has been receiving more and more high-level visits — from Taiwanese ministers, vice-ministers, generals and admirals. And more U.S. officials are visiting Taiwan,” he said. “In the past, most of these visits had to be kept in the dark.”
But no more — especially as bilateral commercial relations continue to boom and Taiwan unashamedly flexes its economic muscle.
“I’m very sorry to say that since 2008, our accumulated total trade surplus with the U.S. has been $96.4 billion,” Shen said, reeling off trade statistics as the numbers appeared on a giant TV screen behind him for his huge audience to digest. These included everything from the value of recent Taiwanese investment pledges here ($13.1 billion) to the recent signing of a contract to purchase grains from American farmers ($12.3 billion).
“Direct flights between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits have jumped from zero to 1,900 a week, so we need to buy more Boeing aircraft,” he said, noting that Taiwanese airlines have ordered nearly 40 Boeing 777-300ER aircraft worth more than $10 billion.
This trade, Shen said, has supported or created 400,000 American jobs. But the relationship is not based only on financial or materialistic considerations.
“We treasure our shared values of democracy, human rights and friendship,” he told the crowd. “Even though generations have passed, today we still express our gratitude to the offspring of American leaders who helped us during World War II.”
Then the speechifying really began.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV), the only senator on the stage, said that he had first visited Taiwan in 2002 as West Virginia’s secretary of state. During the visit, he also met President Ma, who at that time was still mayor of Taipei.
“He didn’t say a word, but started singing ‘Country Roads’ and knew every word of it,” Machin recalled. “That’s when I knew he and I were in for a long friendship.”
Then came Cuban-born congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who made no bones about her hatred of communism. At her side was fellow Florida Republican politician Lincoln Díaz-Balart, who served in Congress from 1993 to 2011.
“Taiwan is a beacon of freedom in the Pacific,” said the strident GOP hawk, insisting that the big challenge is “how we can strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan alliance in the face of an increasingly aggressive China, and provide the kind of political, security and economic assistance that will allow Taiwan to resist any type of Chinese coercion and continue to be a force for peace, stability and freedom in the region. We cannot afford to neglect our ally, Taiwan.”
Then yet another Floridian, Rep. Lois Frankel, injected an innocent bit of partisan politics into the gathering. The liberal Democrat and former mayor of West Palm Beach talked about her recent trip to the ROC, casually remarking that given the rising popularity of Tsai Ing-wen — chair of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party — it’s increasingly likely that 2016 will see “the first woman president in the history of Taiwan — just before we do the same in the United States.”
Turning to Ros-Lehtinen, Frankel smiled and laughed, saying, “I hope Ileana got that.”
In the end, every one of the 15 lawmakers made their speeches, along with David B. Roosevelt, FDR’s 73-year-old grandson, who presented Shen with a copy of the famous 1943 Cairo Declaration.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), the only Taiwanese-born member of Congress, greeted the crowd in Mandarin. He noted that his native island ranks the fourth-largest trading partner of Los Angeles County’s 33rd Congressional District, which he’s represented since January 2015.
“Whatever I can do to increase trade and commerce between our two countries, I will do,” he promised. “And whatever I can do to help my grandmother in Taiwan, I will.”
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Arizona), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, also spoke in Mandarin, to the delight of his audience. He also called for Taiwan to be included in the next round of negotiations of the deeply controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, which now encompass 12 countries including Japan, Singapore and Vietnam — but not China.
“I believe that the United States must always consider its best friend and ally in this part of the world. That’s why I introduced the bill that would include Taiwan as part of Interpol,” said Salmon, who lived in Taiwan from 1977 to 1979. “Taiwan needs to be part of more and more international organizations, and I won’t stop until that’s a reality.”