As U.S. Hardens Line on Beijing, Taiwan’s Stock Rises in Washington

Taiwan doesn’t have a U.S. embassy. But it’s got plenty of influence—and more to come.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen visits an air force base
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen visits an air force base in the Penghu Islands on Sept. 22, 2020. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

As the race for the 2024 U.S. presidential election comes to a simmer, two top Republican contenders have gone out of their way to meet with a foreign diplomat they couldn’t meet while they were in office.

Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state, and Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador, both met with Taiwan’s top diplomatic representative in the United States, Bi-khim Hsiao, in recent months. Both later posted about their meetings on social media, extolling Taiwan’s commitment to democracy and freedom. Hsiao gave Pompeo a bag of dried Taiwanese pineapples when she met him. He later tweeted out a photo of himself snacking on them.

U.S. government officials are restricted in how they can interact with officials from Taiwan, the independently governed island that China views as its own territory, as part of the United States’ long-standing “One China” policy. But that is starting to change as a massive shift in Washington is preparing the country for an era of great-power competition with China.

Confronting China seems to be one of the only things that Democrats and Republicans can agree on in Washington’s fractious, hyperpartisan environment today. A big part of that, in turn, is showcasing support for Taiwan, something both Pompeo and Haley seem keen to do as they quietly lay the groundwork for a 2024 presidential bid.

It’s led to a curious phenomenon in Washington. Taiwan, even without formal diplomatic ties with the United States and no formal embassy—its diplomatic outpost in Washington is called the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office—is rapidly gaining outsized diplomatic clout and sway inside the Beltway, something other U.S. allies with full-fledged embassies and ambassadors in Washington can only look on with a bit of jealousy.

Former U.S. officials and congressional aides say that while China’s outgoing ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, rarely makes public appearances anymore and has struggled to even secure meetings with U.S. lawmakers, everyone seems eager to meet their Taiwanese counterparts.

Hsiao, a seasoned Taiwanese diplomat and politician who was educated in the United States, isn’t complaining about the attention. “As an observer of American politics here in Washington, you see a lot of partisan differences,” she said in a recent interview. “But, on the area of Taiwan, there is a lot of agreement and consensus, and that is very much appreciated from our part.”

On the U.S. side, there’s political as well as geopolitical benefits to publicly backing Taiwan and standing up to China, according to Mike Green, a former George W. Bush administration national security official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In the Republican Party, which is badly divided over [former President Donald] Trump, the one thing that Mitt Romney and, say, Ted Cruz definitely agree on is, China’s a problem,” said Green, referring to the more centrist senator from Utah and more hard-line conservative senator from Texas. That extends to the presidential run as well. “If you want to build a brand as a 2024 Republican candidate that you know will unify the party, it’s China,” he said.

There was even symbolism in the dried pineapples Hsiao gifted to Pompeo: China banned the import of Taiwanese pineapples as a punitive trade measure. They’ve since become a symbol of Taiwan’s David-and-Goliath-style defiance of China. “As a proponent of freedom, enjoying some Taiwanese dried pineapple. Checkmate,” Pompeo tweeted.

Hsiao was careful to stress Taiwan strikes a careful balance on engaging with Democrats and Republicans, lest it appear Taipei favors one party over the other. She was quick to point out that she has shared dried pineapple with “friends in the [Biden] administration as well.”

U.S.-Taiwanese relations have come a long way in recent decades and accelerated even more drastically under the Trump administration as Washington took a more hard-line stance toward Beijing. During his final days in office, Pompeo rushed through a rule easing restrictions on how U.S. officials can engage with Taiwanese counterparts. President Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, upheld the rule when he entered office.

Hsiao recalled how about two decades ago, she had to meet with U.S. officials at the State Plaza Hotel near the State Department or at coffee shops to circumvent the restrictive rules on official diplomatic engagement.

“It was just a hassle for everyone involved. And now that we can engage regularly in the State Department, I think it does reflect the growing strength of our bilateral relationship,” she said.

But if the United States has carefully chipped away at one edge of the “One China” policy, it’s still adhering to the fundamentals. This likely means top Biden officials won’t be arranging formal diplomatic visits to the island any time soon—though Biden last month dispatched an unofficial delegation including former Sen. Christopher Dodd and two former deputy secretaries of state, James Steinberg and Richard Armitage, to Taipei.

Chuck Hagel, the former U.S. defense secretary, told Foreign Policy that strengthening unofficial diplomatic ties between the United States and Taiwan can have its own deterrent effect beyond just the military realm—though he cautioned against any additional moves by the United States to chip away at the long-standing  “One China” policy

“We’ve got to recognize that this is not just an equation with China of military strength: how many ships are we going to have, satellites, sophisticated weapons. All that’s part of it, yes, but it’s a lot more than that,” he said.

Hsiao said Taiwan views its relationship with the United States, including economic ties and defense ties, as a critical bulwark against the “existential challenge” Taiwan faces from China, particularly as Beijing pours more money into its military and takes an increasingly aggressive diplomatic stance toward countries that oppose it.

“Their investment in their own military modernization program, the increasing apparent willingness to actually use force to back up their verbal threats, is quite concerning and alarming,” she said.

The specter of armed conflict is hanging over the Taiwan Strait, and senior U.S. defense officials and top military brass have warned that China may make military moves to take control of Taiwan sooner than most in Washington expect. Now-retired Adm. Phil Davidson, then the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned during a Senate hearing in March that China could try to take control of Taiwan in the next six years.

Other U.S. defense officials said an invasion might not be imminent, but Washington has to be prepared just in case. “I don’t look at these as any certain point they’re going to inevitably use force. I think that we can do a lot to try to deter them and to affect their decision calculus,” one senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.  “I think Taiwan can elevate their own capabilities and adjust their strategy to be better positioned to deter China. … We don’t get to pick being ready now or later. We have to be ready to deter or respond appropriately throughout the whole period of time that we’re talking about.”

Kurt Campbell, Biden’s top National Security Council aide on the Indo-Pacific, warned on Tuesday that such a conflict would have disastrous ripple effects. It “would broaden quickly and it would fundamentally trash the global economy in ways that I don’t think anyone can predict,” he said during a Financial Times event.

He said the Biden administration was working “to send a very clear message both to Taiwan, but as importantly to Beijing, about our determination to enhance deterrence and to make clear about our desire to ensure that Taiwan can live in peace.”

Hsiao said Taiwan wasn’t looking to get into an arms race with Beijing but rather to build up its military enough to credibly deter any military action. “In actual military investments here, we are not looking into an arms race with the [People’s Republic of China]. Instead, we focus on what we call asymmetrical capabilities, and that would pose a credible deterrence in the sense of making a consideration of invasion very, very painful for the PRC,” she said. “Part of the deterrence involves Taiwan’s will for self-defense and our own investment, of course, in the right items. But it also involves good coordination with other partners, especially the United States.”

Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter Jack Detsch contributed to this report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer