February 9, 2009
By Mike Krause
For 30 years, the U.S. has maintained an “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan.
And while this outdated policy acquiesces nicely to communist China’s absurd (and equally outdated) claim of sovereignty over democratic Taiwan, it also badly undermines the American tradition of supporting democracy around the globe.
President Barack Obama could begin undoing this backward policy and send a significant foreign policy message by simply instructing his State Department to issue new guidelines lifting travel restrictions on Taiwanese officials to the U.S. and allowing direct contact between Washington and Taipei.
In fact, Mr. Obama suggested this during the campaign.
In March 2008, Taiwan held a presidential election. Ma Ying-Jeou of the Nationalist Party defeated the Democratic Progressive Party candidate. It was Taiwan’s second peaceful transfer of party power through democratic elections.
Commenting on the election, then-candidate Obama stated that the U.S. should respond by “rebuilding a relationship of trust and support” with democratic Taiwan. “The U.S. should reopen blocked channels of communication with Taiwan officials,” Obama said.
What is President Obama waiting for?
The State Department issued its first backwards set of Taiwan guidelines in 1979, when the U.S. ended diplomatic relations with Taipei in order to recognize the communist dictatorship in Beijing.
Since then, Taiwan has transformed itself from an authoritarian regime (much like China remains today) and into a vibrant representative democracy with a market economy — precisely the kind of country whose representatives should be able to not only communicate directly with their counterparts in Washington, D.C., but who also should be welcomed into the United States for official visits.
The Bush administration continued undermining American support for democracy abroad by expanding and re-issuing the backward guidelines in 2008.
For instance, high-level Taiwanese officials, including the democratically elected president of Taiwan, are barred from visiting Washington. On the other hand, the unelected leader of China’s thuggish communist party has been welcomed into the White House.
Another rule precludes U.S. embassy personnel from accepting invitations to “official” Taiwan-hosted functions, or functions held at “Taiwan’s official premises” and vice versa.
In a particularly bizarre ban on communication, U.S. officials are not allowed to communicate directly with their counterparts in Taiwan, but rather must send letters to each other through a third party.
As the Taipei Times newspaper describes, “Even personal thank you notes must be written on plain paper and put in a plain envelope to disguise the sender’s official identity.”
All of this, and more, just to appease the Chinese communists in Beijing.
President Obama could change this — without having to commit thousands of American troops, or billions of U.S. tax dollars, to either regime change or nation building.
In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Obama noted that “we cannot meet 21st century challenges with a 20th century bureaucracy.”
If this is so, how can we meet 21st century foreign policy challenges while tied to a 20th century Taiwan policy that contradicts everything the U.S. is supposed to stand for?
This article first appeared in the Colorado Daily, February 8th, 2009.