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US sending in marines to guard its 'embassy' in Taiwan, whether China likes it or not

Journalists tour the new office complex of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) during a dedication ceremony in Taipei on June 12, 2018. Photo: AFP

The US has moved ahead with its decision to station US marines as security guards at the new offices of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – Washington's informal embassy in Taipei – in an unprecedented action that firms military ties with the self-ruled island.

“A small number of American personnel detailed to AIT, along with a larger number of locally hired employees, will provide security for the new office building in cooperation with local authorities,” a US State Department official confirmed to the South China Morning Post on Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Even as the US negotiates its trade frictions with China and the two nations make shows of naval strength along the Taiwan Strait, the marine deployment is the latest move by the Trump administration to signal solid ties with Taipei – and the second involving the AIT this year.

Before the institute’s new offices were formally opened in late spring, there had been speculation that those in attendance might include a US Cabinet officer – perhaps National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is a strong Taiwan booster.

But the opening ceremonies were held on June 12, the same day that US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore, and it was decided not to aggravate Beijing. Washington sent an assistant secretary of state, Marie Royce, to the opening instead.

The United States customarily deploys marines as guards at American embassies, consulates and other official government buildings around the world. But this would be the first time since 1979 – when the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China – that Washington has applied similar security protocols to its unofficial Taipei embassy.

Even so, this deployment seems to have been in the works for a long time. Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Security and International Studies in Washington, said that “the decisions about security of the new AIT complex were made years ago, and have simply been reaffirmed by the Trump administration”.

Washington has no formal ties with Taiwan, though it maintains informal relations with the island. Beijing regards Taiwan as a wayward province to be brought under its rule by force if necessary.

It is not immediately clear whether the marines would be stationed in uniform when the new building enters into full operation next month. The State Department official declined to “discuss specific security matters concerning the protection of our facility or personnel”.

When asked about the potential assignment of marines to Taiwan at a news conference in late June, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang urged the US to “exercise caution”.

“That the US strictly abides by its ‘one China’ pledge and refrains from having any official exchanges or military contact with Taiwan are the political preconditions for China-US relations,” Lu said. “The US is clear about the Chinese position and knows it should exercise caution on this issue to avoid affecting overall bilateral ties.”

The Global Times, a tabloid owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, also warned in an opinion article in July that Beijing would consider such a deployment as “a severe subversion of the one-China policy or even an invasion of the US military of Chinese soil”.

The US move comes after China has applied increasing pressure to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world community. In May, China insisted that international airlines identify Taiwan as part of China in their flight schedules.

And in the last two years – since Tsai Ing-wen became leader of Taiwan on a platform Beijing sees as leaning to independence for the island – Taipei has lost diplomatic recognition from five allies that switched their recognition to China, most recently El Salvador last week.

The move by El Salvador drew a wave of voices from pro-Taiwan politicians in Washington advocating for more ties with Taipei.

Earlier this year, the US Congress unanimously approved, and Trump signed into law, the Taiwan Travel Act, allowing officials at all levels of US government – including cabinet-level officials – to travel to Taiwan.

In light of El Salvador’s action, US Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, said he was preparing legislation to encourage Taiwan’s 17 remaining allies to stick with Taipei.

Gardner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia subcommittee, said he planned to introduce a measure authorising the State Department to downgrade relations with or alter assistance to any nation that switches its allegiance.

“The Taipei Act of 2018 would give greater tools and directions to the State Department in making sure we are as strong a voice as possible for Taiwan,” Gardner told Reuters.

Walter Lohman, director of Asian studies at the Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation, said that “when a country like Salvador breaks its relations [with Taiwan], that puts everyone into a mode of looking for new ways to show support.”

Lohman told the Post that the US government has other options to further its relations with Taiwan even as it adheres to adhere to a “one China” policy and maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

Those could include sending a cabinet-level official soon to visit Taiwan, making a port call by a hospital ship, and negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement, Lohman said.


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