By Nolan Masterson
Foreign Service personnel assigned to Taipei, Taiwan, before 1979 completed their tours at the Embassy of the United States to the Republic of China. However, the United States changed its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing on Jan. 1, 1979; therefore, all Foreign Service personnel that had been assigned to Taiwan were then destined for a tour at the newly created American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). This past January, AIT launched a year-long campaign, known as AIT@40, to celebrate 40 years of the unique and dynamic, but unofficial, relationship between the United States and Taiwan. AIT will also move to a new office compound on May 6, 2019—the first purpose-built facility by a foreign representative office in Taiwan—as a further expression of the U.S. government’s enduring commitment to Taiwan and its peopl
The U.S. terminated official diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 in order to establish official ties with the People’s Republic of China. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8) on April 10, 1979, which authorized the continuation of “commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.” It also mandated that “any programs, transactions or other relations conducted or carried out by the President or any agency of the United States Government with respect to Taiwan” be managed through the American Institute in Taiwan.
AIT is a non-profit private corporation that receives federal funding and operates similarly to an embassy. The Department of State, through a contract with the Institute, provides a large part of AIT’s funding and guidance for its operations. AIT Washington, located in Arlington, Va., serves as a liaison with its counterpart organization, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, as well as with all other U.S. government agencies. AIT’s Taipei office, along with a branch office in Kaohsiung that functions like a consulate, has a staff of more than 450 people and undertakes a wide range of activities representing U.S. interests, including commercial services, agriculture, consular services, defense cooperation and cultural exchanges. AIT also operates a Chinese language school, a trade center and an American Center.
For 40 years, the Taiwan Relations Act and the three U.S.-China Joint Communiques have served as the foundation of the “one-China policy” that guides U.S. relations with Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. Under the leadership of Director W. Brent Christensen, AIT seeks to strengthen the partnership with Taiwan by promoting four priority areas: U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation, the U.S.-Taiwan economic and commercial relationship, Taiwan’s role in the global community and people-to-people ties.
The Taiwan Relations Act committed the United States to provide Taiwan with defensive services, as necessary, to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability against coercion by outside parties. Cooperation aimed at bolstering and modernizing Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities is also an important part of the U.S. government’s broader effort to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific. As an example of this cooperation, in the past two years the United States has approved nearly $1.7 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. Additionally, hundreds of Taiwan military personnel travel to the United States each year for training in military readiness, strategic planning, and vehicle and weapons maintenance. Many Taiwan military personnel complete their studies at prominent military institutions, including the service academies, war colleges and military post-graduate institutions. This policy of supporting Taiwan’s defense needs, consistent across seven U.S. administrations, has helped foster Taiwan’s prosperity and democratic development while also bolstering regional stability.
Last year, U.S.-Taiwan two-way trade through November totaled $68 billion. To provide a comparison of magnitude, U.S. trade with Taiwan is on par with U.S. trade with Italy or U.S. trade with India. AIT views Taiwan as a partner that plays by the rules, which has fueled its economic growth with innovation and entrepreneurship. Having achieved a per capita GDP—in terms of purchasing power parity—that is higher than Japan and Korea, Taiwan serves as a model of free market-oriented development.
The United States and Taiwan have enjoyed decades of cooperation on technology, with Taiwan forming a critical link in U.S. technology supply chains, in particular for semiconductors. In 2015, AIT and Taiwan officials launched the State Department-led Digital Economy Forum (DEF) to help bring the U.S.-Taiwan economic relationship into the digital age. The DEF has helped promote the development of emerging technologies, encourage digital startups and create an open legal and regulatory environment for digital trade. With current U.S.-China trade tensions centering on technology and the foundational importance of the development of 5G for the future digital economy, cooperation with Taiwan on the digital economy has become more important than ever.
AIT consistently works to promote the idea that Taiwan is a democratic role model, a reliable partner and a force for good in the world. One of the signature programs in achieving this goal is the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), an international platform that allows Taiwan to showcase the world-class strengths and expertise that it can contribute to address global challenges. Since the launch of GCTF in 2015, AIT has held 15 programs on issues such as public health, energy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, women’s empowerment and law enforcement. More than 200 policymakers and experts from dozens of countries around the Indo-Pacific region have participated in these workshops, highlighting the strong U.S.-Taiwan partnership, showcasing Taiwan as a positive role model and increasing Taiwan’s role in the global community in a creative manner.
Taiwan’s assistance on other critical global challenges, including promoting religious freedom, can serve as a model for all countries. In July 2018, AIT worked closely with Washington counterparts to ensure that Taiwan was well-represented at the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by Secretary Pompeo in Washington, D.C. The Ministerial convened a broad range of stakeholders, including foreign ministers, international organization representatives, religious leaders and civil society representatives, to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination and to ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all. One of the key outcomes of the Ministerial was a decision to organize follow-up regional conferences in 2019 to better facilitate interfaith cooperation and raise the profile of this issue with governments and Taiwan was chosen to host the forum for the Indo-Pacific region.
As a general matter, AIT supports Taiwan’s full membership in international organizations that do not require statehood and encourages its meaningful participation in organizations that do. AIT remains committed to Taiwan’s active participation in organizations such as Interpol, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the World Health Organization and other international organizations. However, Taiwan is not a signatory to many UN conventions, including the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and thus does not have access to Interpol data, including Interpol’s color notices—fugitives and criminals—and lost and stolen passport data. AIT continues to work with Taiwan counterparts to create memorandums of understanding that fill these gaps. AIT signed an agreement on the transfer of lost and stolen passport data in 2016 and signed an agreement on international parental child abduction in April 2019.
People-to-people ties are the driving force of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. On any given day, there are over 80,000 U.S. citizens in Taiwan. With so many resident American citizens, the volume of services performed by AIT’s American Citizens Services unit is similar to that of much larger embassies such as Beijing and Seoul, South Korea. Since the 2012 announcement of Taiwan’s participation in the Visa Waiver Program, travel from Taiwan to the United States has increased 60 percent. In 2018, there were more than 1 million people that traveled between the United States and Taiwan.
While many Taiwanese travelers can travel visa-free to the United States, AIT still processes about 32,000 visas each year, almost half of whom are students. Taiwan is currently the seventh largest source of international students in the United States, ranking above much larger countries like Brazil, Japan and Mexico. Many Taiwan leaders earned degrees in the United States, including President Tsai Ing-wen, who has a law degree from Cornell University. In addition, the Fulbright Program celebrated its 60th anniversary in Taiwan in 2017, marking an impressive history of more than 3,000 U.S. and Taiwanese grantees. The International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) has also produced noteworthy Taiwanese alumni, including former President Ma Ying-jeou, who participated in the IVLP in 1971. On a similar note, AIT processes approximately 1,800 H1B and L1 visas annually for highly specialized workers—including engineers, chemists and physicists—to work at leading tech companies in the United States such as Google, Amazon, Uber, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Tesla.
The United States and Taiwan have an impressive record of cooperation and achievement and this year AIT is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, which has served as the foundation for this unique relationship. In celebration, AIT plans to highlight various aspects of the U.S.-Taiwan partnership such as shared values, trade and investment, security, education and more, as well as explore ways to expand cooperation in these areas. AIT has also designated 2019 as the “U.S.-Taiwan Travel Year” to encourage even more two-way travel between the United States and Taiwan. On April 15, AIT hosted a major event—attended by several former and active members of Congress—commemorating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the American Institute in Taiwan and the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act. The event was held at AIT’s new $255 million office compound, which serves as a symbol of U.S. commitment to this partnership and an investment in the future of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
Nolan Masterson is a consular officer at the American Institute in Taiwan, Taipei.