First U.S. Ambassador To Visit Taiwan In Four Decades Reflects On Tensions With China
Recent visits by U.S. officials to Taiwan have renewed waves of tension with China as the Chinese government insists it controls the island territory, an assertion the Taiwanese nationalist government disputes.
Texas A&M Today spoke with Texas A&M University Professor and Former U.S. Ambassador to Palau John T. Hennessey-Niland for his thoughts on the current climate. Hennessey-Niland is a professor of the practice and head of the diplomacy concentration at the Bush School of Government and Public Service.
In March 2021, he accompanied the president of Palau — an island nation in the western Pacific Ocean — to Taiwan, making him the first U.S. ambassador to visit the nation since diplomatic ties ceased in 1980.
It’s undoubtedly a complex history, but for those not familiar, why are there tensions between China and Taiwan?
Taiwan was ruled by Japan for close to 50 years until the end of World War II. Following the Allied victory, the ruling nationalist government in China took control of Taiwan. But after a bloody civil war between the nationalist government and the Chinese communist party, the nationalists fled to Taiwan. The PRC government (People’s Republic of China) has repeatedly stated that it regards Taiwan as part of China. Of course, the view from Taipei is different but many regard a move toward “independence” could lead to conflict with the PRC.
As a result of Hennessey-Niland’s visit, more than 30 Chinese military aircraft crossed into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in a show of the PRC’s displeasure.
Tell us about your own career history as it relates to Taiwan.
I was the first U.S. ambassador to visit Taiwan in 42 years, since the cessation of diplomatic ties, when I accompanied the president of Palau to Taipei in March 2021. As our ambassador in Palau, a country that recognizes Taiwan, my participation in this visit was part of a shared effort to ensure Palau received vital assistance from its key partners that it needed to weather the COVID-19 pandemic. As the American Institute in Taiwan noted in a press release, the visit also reaffirmed “our commitment to strengthening U.S.-Taiwan-Palau cooperation by promoting democracy and good governance, countering climate change, advancing digital health, fostering women’s empowerment, promoting agricultural trade, strengthening coast guard cooperation and enhancing Palau’s cybersecurity” — all areas where the U.S., Taiwan and Palau work in partnership. Predictably, the reaction from Beijing was negative and coercive, with the PRC stating the visit “crossed a red line.” To underline this message, over 30 Chinese military aircraft in two waves crossed into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in a show of the PRC’s displeasure.
How would you characterize current relations between the U.S. and Taiwan?
From my perspective as a former U.S. Ambassador in the Indo-Pacific, I would say that the U.S. and Taiwan are partners in a number of areas of real importance, including climate, humanitarian missions, health, etc. Regarding official U.S. policy, since 1979, the U.S. has had a “one China” policy where we recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of China. Under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. continues to retain close unofficial ties to Taiwan and provides defensive weaponry to Taiwan. Currently, there is much debate over what is known as “strategic ambiguity” — the policy of not being too specific about if or how the U.S. would defend Taiwan in case of an invasion by the PRC. I believe we need to be clearer about the first point (defending Taiwan) while still being deliberately ambiguous about the second (how we would do so) to ensure the U.S. and its allies have flexibility as to exactly how we would help defend Taiwan.
What did you learn there that you didn’t know before you went?
My wife and I had never been to Taiwan. We had visited the PRC previously, and had a great visit, but this was our first time in Taiwan. I was impressed by the dynamism of its people, its democracy and its free press. Its economy is also deeply invested in new technologies and it is a world leader in the field of fiber optic chips — so essential to America’s and global growth. It is great to see that a Taiwanese company is now building a new factory here in Texas to manufacture these chips, that are in everything we use today. We had a wonderful visit and everywhere we went, we were met with such kindness and great hospitality. I look forward to going back soon to visit Taiwan again.
Why is Taiwan an important player on the global stage?
Taiwan is an important regional and global player. It is a vibrant democracy and its economy is closely linked to ours. If you think about the need to have a secure supply chain of the key components to power technology and our own economy, such as computer chips, it is vital that Taiwan’s supply and access to the U.S. is uninterrupted. Taiwan has great expertise in a number of other areas of great benefit to the U.S. and our partners. And it is a fact that Taiwan is part of the Indo Pacific region — regardless of one’s views of its “status” — and plays a helpful role in this key region and on the global stage.
What do visits to Taiwan by U.S. leaders say to the Chinese government?
My visit hopefully helped open the door to more recent visits by senior U.S. officials such as those by the Speaker of the House and a number of Congressional delegations and other leaders. I believe these visits are important as they clearly signal that Taiwan’s future is of importance to the U.S., that we support the status quo and we are opposed to any military action or use of force against Taiwan. These visits are also important in showing that Taiwan is not isolated and has friends and partners on the global stage even if it only has official diplomatic relations with 13 nations currently.
What do you make of Chinese carrier groups stationing off the island’s coast?
I am not overly concerned about this or other sabre rattling from the PRC. The Chinese navy has the right to transit straits and other international waters as does the U.S. navy and I support every country’s right to freedom of navigation and respect for the laws of the sea. What does concern me is when a country blatantly violates these rules such as, for example, the PRC’s malign and illegal actions in the South China Sea.
What would the U.S./allies do if China attempted to take Taiwan by military force?
I very much hope this does not happen but trust we would come to the defense of Taiwan if it were invaded. One lesson from Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine that I believe should give pause — to anyone thinking of invading another nation — is this: it may not be as easy as predicted, and far harder to achieve a “fait accompli” than planned. People will defend their freedom.
What are your predictions for the future?
With regard to Taiwan, this is the key challenge in the U.S.-PRC relationship. And what happens with U.S. relationship with the PRC will determine our future. But I do not have any crystal ball as to whether conflict is inevitable or avoidable over Taiwan. The U.S. government policy toward China is, to paraphrase, to cooperate (where possible), compete (for the foreseeable future) and to counter (when necessary) malign PRC actions globally. So I would urge all of us to be very clear about what is and what isn’t acceptable in terms of PRC activities and be ready to cooperate where we can and be prepared to defend our interests when we can’t. Competition between the two powers is unlikely to cease anytime soon.