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Why Taiwan Is Receiving Unprecedented Attention From Washington


As the relationship between the United States and China has gotten testier, the Trump administration has quietly been drawing another player in the region closer. Taiwan has received unprecedented attention from Washington, including a new complex to house America's de facto embassy that is going to be opening tomorrow. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: On the second floor of Taipei's swanky Grand Hotel, there's a bright red hallway with dozens of framed photos featuring famous guests from the past 60 years.

You've got President Eisenhower, Lyndon Baines Johnson, king of Saudi Arabia, and then here in the middle, 1978, the negotiation for the United States to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It happened right here.

The U.S. officially recognized China's Communist Party as the government of China. Taiwan's status plummeted, and so, too, does the status of the famous guests at the Grand Hotel. World leaders are replaced with B-movie stars, local politicians and the king of Tonga. Taiwan has never recovered, says former senior adviser to Taiwan's National Security Council Wen-Ching Lin.

WEN-CHING LIN: (Through interpreter) Our minister of defense can't meet his U.S. counterpart. Our foreign affairs minister can't meet his counterpart, either. Our president can't meet Trump. Even a phone call caused an international stir.

SCHMITZ: The phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to Trump to congratulate him on being elected president made China uneasy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The clerk will report the title of the bill.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: H.R. 535, the bill to encourage...

SCHMITZ: That turned to anger earlier this year when both houses of the U.S. Congress did something they rarely do anymore. They unanimously passed a bill. The Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages officials at all levels in the U.S. government to visit the island, was later signed into law by President Trump. The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy's Szu-chien Hsu says in his more than a decade of lobbying on Capitol Hill, he's seen a change of attitude towards China.

SZU-CHIEN HSU: Let's say we turn the clock back - let's say 10 or 15 years ago. The atmosphere was totally different, totally different, whereas nowadays on the Hill, you'll hear very little voice defending China.

SCHMITZ: Hsu notices a China fatigue setting in as Beijing becomes bolder in its often ham-fisted attempts to influence the world both politically and economically. These efforts may work in the developing world, Taiwan Sentinel editor J. Michael Cole says, but the West is growing wary of Beijing.

J MICHAEL COLE: So as the world seems to face a bit of crisis in democracy, we more and more realize that authoritarian revisionist regimes have played a role in this.

SCHMITZ: And as this realization sets in, says Cole, countries around the world are looking for help on how to deal with a more aggressive China.

COLE: If there is one country on the face of the planet that has faced this kind of activity and pressure for decades, it's Taiwan, which means that it has a lot of experience and things to share with countries that are newcomers in their exchanges with the Chinese Communist Party.

SCHMITZ: And Taiwan would like something in return, says former official Wen-Ching Lin.

LIN: (Through interpreter) There should be joint military exercise operations with Taiwan like the U.S. has with Japan or South Korea. Taiwan now needs to push for our navy to be able to visit Hawaii, too.

SCHMITZ: Even as they wait for approval for these visits, there are reports of the U.S. considering selling Taiwan advanced defense technologies, something China has no patience for. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu is used to this talk, but he points out that Taiwan has many friends in high places in the U.S.

JOSEPH WU: Those friends are in the White House. Those friends are in the State Department. And those friends are in the Pentagon. So, you know, we are in a rather comfortable situation that both the administration and the legislative branch are very supportive of Taiwan.

SCHMITZ: And the more China is seen as a threat to the U.S., the more supportive those friends will be. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Taipei.


Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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