While the world's eyes were glued to events in Singapore last week, the United States was holding another important — and controversial — diplomatic ceremony in Taiwan.
On June 11, the United States formally opened a new $255 million building housing the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. Embassy in the country. Moving the AIT from its crumbling 1950s-era quarters to the mammoth new complex was seen in both Washington and Taipei as a symbol of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. Taiwan sent a star-studded, bipartisan delegation to the ceremony, including Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition Kuomintang.
“I offer you this [building], a tangible symbol that the United States is here to stay,” said Kin Moy, the AIT's director and a longtime American diplomat.
The symbolism was not lost on China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province rather than an independent country. “The U.S., by sending officials to Taiwan under whatever pretext, severely violates the one-China principle and three China-U.S. joint communiques, interferes in China’s internal affairs and exerts negative impact on China-U.S. relations,” Geng Shuang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said on the day of the ceremony. Another Chinese spokesman, Ma Xiaoguang, repeated the message the next day.
This symbolic gesture comes at a particularly testy time between Taiwan and China. Eight months ago, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Taiwan to stay in line. “We have sufficient abilities to thwart any form of Taiwan independence attempts,” he said. Tensions have grown between the two countries since the election of Tsai, who has refused to recognize the “1992 Consensus” in which both China and Taiwan affirmed the “One-China principle.”
Since the Congress, Beijing has shown it is serious about its threats. Of the 21 countries that recognized Taiwan as a sovereign state in 2017, three have since reversed that position in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with mainland China. The most recent country to make the switch was Burkina Faso, which broke off relations with Taiwan in late May.
In January, China also shut down the website of hotelier Marriott International for a week after the company sent out a survey listing Taiwan as a separate country, prompting complaints from the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry that Beijing was “bullying” and interfering with “the normal operations of international firms with political force.” Since then, Japanese retailer Muji and American clothing company Gap have also issued apologies to China for designating Taiwan as a separate state.
Amid this growing “squeeze” of Taiwan, Shihoko Goto, the senior Northeast Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the new AIT building takes on particularly large significance.
“The fact that the United States has invested so much money and effort to build this building is a concrete example of U.S. commitment to Taiwan,” Goto said. “It also means the United States will be there for the long haul.”
American institutions are already chafing against Beijing's tightening grip over Taiwan. In May, China issued a command calling on all airline companies to clearly designate Taiwan as a Chinese territory. Although most carriers have acquiesced, a handful of American companies continue to resist the order.
Beijing has yet to retaliate against these airlines, but the possibility of financial penalties could cause significant damage, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Similarly, it’s unclear whether China will react to the new AIT building with anything more than verbal reprimands.
“We take the Taiwan issue very seriously,” Zhou Jingxing, chief of the political section at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told The Washington Post, “and we will do what we have to do.”