But from an official U.S. perspective, he isn’t actually an ambassador. Instead, as representative for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, he’s a diplomat in a de facto sense, working out of a relatively modest Tenleytown office.
Despite the chaos caused by the coronavirus, Kao feels optimistic about Taiwan’s place in the world and, in particular, its relationship with Washington. “Certainly, it is not a business as usual,” he said of quasi-embassy life under shutdown during a phone call this week, but he felt positive. “We see a new niche, an opening. A new window of opportunity to work even closer.”
Taiwan has been widely praised for its surprise success in battling covid-19, despite its proximity to mainland China. There have been fewer than 450 confirmed cases among its 23 million people. Taiwan has not reported a case of local transmission for 24 days, and only six people have died.
In Washington — a city with a population roughly 3 percent of Taiwan’s and more than 250 covid-19 deaths — Kao has found himself in demand, appearing via video to lawmakers, officials and private-sector figures to detail how his nation succeeded as others failed.
And Taiwan wants to offer more than just advice. In just the past month, Kao said, Taiwan has donated more than 30 million surgical masks to other countries, including 5 million to the United States. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s lack of involvement with the World Health Organization — and the ensuing war of words with the WHO secretariat — has brought renewed focus on the practical consequences of Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.
“Life is not always fair and neither is international politics,” said Kao, who at 66 years old has worked in the field for four decades. “But Taiwan has its strengths, and we like to play our strengths."
Indeed, the pandemic has made Taiwan look strong. Its success has been hailed alongside nations like New Zealand and Vietnam. Taipei has highlighted what it dubs the “Taiwan model,” pointing to its national health insurance system, big data and artificial intelligence, and public-private partnerships, among other factors.
Kao noted that despite the low number of cases, the island didn’t fully lock down. Schools and universities remained open, as did many stores and restaurants. “So far we are still able to enjoy professional baseball,” the representative said, though fans have to watch from home.
A fast, independent and transparent approach was partly responsible for Taiwan’s success, Kao said. “We learned from the 2003 SARS epidemic the hard way,” he said, referring to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that saw Taiwan battling the virus without the coordination afforded by WHO recognition. There were 73 SARS deaths in Taiwan.
Seventeen years later, WHO recognition remains an issue for Taiwan. It was granted observer status at the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body, for eight years. But since the election of Taiwan’s pro-status quo President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, Beijing has pushed international organizations to follow its “One China” policy, which views Taiwan as a renegade province and its government as illegitimate.
WHO officials maintain they must follow the United Nations and that membership of the World Health Assembly is up to member states. The debate has taken on a bitter tone, with WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus suggesting in April that the island’s government was participating in a racist campaign against him — a charge the government denies.
The United States, which has cut funding to the WHO during the coronavirus, has called on Tedros to invite Taiwan to the assembly. “This is not something that WHO secretariat has authority to decide,” WHO legal officer Steven Solomon said at a briefing Monday, noting that the two nations had proposed Taiwan’s participation be considered for the next meeting later this month.
Many in Taiwan were unsure what to expect of President Trump. As president-elect, Trump had accepted a call from Tsai that caused diplomatic shock waves as an apparent snub to Beijing. But afterward, the U.S. leader acted as if he were more interested in making a deal with Beijing than overtly supporting Taipei.
Now, amid the pandemic, relations between Washington and Beijing are at their worst in years, with no off-ramp in sight. Prominent U.S. officials including the president have accused China of coverups and culpability related to the virus, with some suggesting they may seek recourse.
Kao said his government was watching these developments closely. But he also noted that his optimism about Taiwan’s relationship with the United States was based on more than just the coronavirus. He pointed to strong bipartisan support for his country in Congress, which passed the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018 and, earlier this year, the TAIPEI Act, both of which promote greater interaction with Taiwan’s government.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar spoke recently with Taiwanese Minister of Health and Welfare Shih-Chung Chen. And in a Chinese-language speech this week, deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger pointed to Taiwan as an example of a Chinese government practicing real democracy, which Kao said impressed him personally.
Kao said Tsai, who won a second term in January, would put a bilateral free-trade agreement with the United States at “the top of her agenda — almost a signature policy.” Whether Kao himself will see that is unclear. Reports in Taiwan suggest Tsai is planning to send a new envoy to Washington — Hsiao Bi-khim, a U.S.-educated former legislator who would be the first woman in the role.
This week, Kao said only that he served at the direction of Taiwan’s president. He added that he had first joined Taiwan’s foreign service in January 1979, only a month after Washington severed diplomatic relations with Taipei, which he said was the “darkest hour” for Taiwan-U.S. relations. “Slowly and surely we’ve picked up the pieces,” he added. “The rest is history.”