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US to Open New De Facto Embassy in Taiwan, Defying Beijing's Pressure

FILE - bIn this photograph taken on May 3, 2018, construction signage is seen in front of the newly-built American Institute in Taipei (AIT) building in Taipei.
FILE - bIn this photograph taken on May 3, 2018, construction signage is seen in front of the newly-built American Institute in Taipei (AIT) building in Taipei.

The U.S. government’s completion, this week, of a sprawling de facto American embassy in Taipei signals a strong warming of relations between the two governments despite pressure from Beijing.

Officials from Washington on Tuesday will unveil the new structure built for its informal diplomatic mission, the American Institute in Taiwan. The 14,000-square-meter, $250 million compound on the northeastern edge of Taiwan's capital will replace a smaller one that is located in the city center.

For years, the United States has been moving diplomatic missions around the world to comply with new security rules following two bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa 20 years ago. The U.S. Department of State is spending $21 billion to replace 201 of what officials of the U.S. government's General Accountability Office say are not only unsafe but "dilapidated" diplomatic facilities.

But the boxy U.S. hillside compound in Taipei has excited officials in Taiwan because it follows what they see as encouraging moves by Washington recently that — as Taiwan officials see it — give them a shot of strength to resist unending pressure from China. Beijing claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory.

“The AIT’s completion of its new offices, this kind of major event indicates a sense of importance, whether it’s for government departments or for the public,” Taiwan foreign ministry spokesman Andrew Lee told a news conference week.

Tension with China

Taiwan looks to U.S. support to stand up to China, which has the world's second largest economy and the third most powerful military.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the island since communists came to power on the mainland in 1948 and China considers it a renegade province. Meanwhile, polls in Taiwan show that most Taiwanese prefer autonomy. Beijing has turned up pressure since 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taiwan and rejected the idea that both sides fall under one flag.

Beijing goes to great lengths to prevent Taiwan from joining international organizations. It has paid four of Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies to switch allegiance since 2016, officials in Taipei say, leaving just 18 countries that recognize Taipei. It has also flown military planes just outside Taiwan’s air defense identification zone 12 times since 2015 and sailed an aircraft carrier around the island.

Series of pro-Taiwan decisions

Taiwan-U.S. ties have solidified since March, when U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act. The measure, which passed unanimously in the U.S. Congress and triggered a formal protest from Beijing, encourages high-level visits between Washington and Taipei in the absence of formal diplomatic ties. Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, is visiting Taiwan June 10-14 and will attend a ceremony marking completion of the Taipei compound.

In April, the U.S. government said it would give American defense contractors marketing licenses for submarine technology sought by Taiwan’s defense ministry.

Later in April, the State Department advocated participation for Taiwan in the World Health Organization’s annual assembly and other international organizations. Last month, the White House criticized China for asking that 44 international airlines avoid listing Taiwan as a “country” on their websites.

The new de facto embassy compound comes as a sign of U.S. concern for Taiwan as China tries to make Taiwan bend, ruling party legislator Lee Chun-yi said.

“At least what everyone can see clearly is that at present it’s China that’s changing the China-Taiwan status quo, and the U.S. State Department has said that clearly,” the lawmaker said. “The cause of the problem isn’t Taiwan. Taiwan is maintaining the status quo. So, I think [progress in U.S.-Taiwan ties] is a positive development.”

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Sunday the new building’s dedication set for Tuesday will mark "a milestone that reflects the importance of the U.S.-Taiwan partnership.”

No formal relations

The new de facto diplomatic mission does not formalize Taiwan-U.S. relations. Washington dropped official recognition of Taiwan in 1979 in favor of recognizing the larger, faster-growing communist China. The U.S. still calibrates much of its Taiwan policy with an eye toward avoiding a major upset of Beijing, analysts say.

“Construction of this facility has been working for many years, so I don’t think there are any additional messages that you can derive from this facility,” said Alex Chiang, international relations professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

While Taiwan officials feel a boost for now, some worry it may not be for long and there is concern here the Trump Administration may be using Taiwan as a bargaining chip to get more from China on trade or North Korea.

Once Trump gets what he wants, some scholars argue, he will sideline ties with Taiwan.

Leaders of Taiwan's ruling party “are worried the U.S. will suddenly drop everything,” said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor.