THOMPSON CHAU, Contributing writer
TAIPEI — Former top defense and security officials sent by U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Taipei late Tuesday to shore up Taiwan’s international support in the face of threats from China — a visit that will be followed by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is set to land Wednesday evening.
Biden’s delegation arrives as Taiwan has scaled up its alert level against potential threats from China amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The mission is significant. It is a clear message to Taiwan — government and people — and to Beijing: ‘The U.S. can deal with two issues at the same time and has not forgotten about Taiwan.’ It will help Tsai pass the message to Taiwanese that Taiwan is not Ukraine,” said a Western diplomat in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The delegation, led by ex-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, is scheduled to meet President Tsai Ing-wen, Vice President William Lai, Premier Su Tseng-chang and Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, according to Taiwan’s foreign ministry. The list of those accompanying Mullen includes Meghan O’Sullivan, a former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush; Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense under President Barack Obama; and former National Security Council officials Michael Green and Evan Medeiros.
“Taiwan is tackling the leading challenges of our time — whether it be a global pandemic or corrosive disinformation and malign influence — without sacrificing core democratic values,” Mullen told Tsai, according to a statement released to the media.
The delegation reflects the bipartisan nature of support for strong partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan, he said, adding that “maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is not just a U.S. interest, but also a global one.”
The U.S. “will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo” and “stands firm behind its commitments” to American “allies and partners,” Mullen said.
“China’s military threat to the Taiwan Strait and to the region continues to rise,” Tsai told the delegation.
“We look forward to working even more closely with the U.S. and other stakeholders in the region, collectively responding to challenges and unilateral actions that could impact security, in order to maintain regional peace and stability,” she said.
Referring to the visit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said a regular briefing on Tuesday that attempts of support by the U.S. toward Taiwan were futile.
“The will of the Chinese people to defend our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is immovable. Whoever United States sends to show support for Taiwan is bound to fail,” Wang said.
Washington is “very worried” that the U.S. commitment to support allies is being questioned after Russia’s aggression because the U.S. did not send troops to Ukraine, noted Pan Chao-min, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Tunghai University. “The U.S. dispatching a bipartisan delegation to Taiwan at this juncture is clearly intended to allay such fears in Taiwan.”
The visit, which came days after a U.S. warship sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait, also serves to counter potential moves by Beijing to take advantage of the turmoil in Europe to put pressure or even take non-peaceful action against Taiwan, Pan added.
Russia’s aggression has heightened a sense of urgency in Taiwan about being attacked by China, with some fearing Beijing might be emboldened to invade an island that has never been part of communist China. Taiwan has its own constitution, democratic government and military, but China sees the self-governed island as a breakaway territory and does not rule out subsuming it by force.
“The [Tsai] government understands the gravity of the situation and the parallels with Taiwan, but they are also confident that the [Ukraine] conflict will not spill into Taiwan and that China will not take advantage to make a move,” the diplomat said.
While Washington and Taipei have no formal ties, U.S. law requires it to provide the island with the means for self-defense. Engagement with Taiwan has strengthened under the Trump and Biden administrations, but some call for more concrete support.
Kelley Currie, a former ambassador in President Donald Trump’s administration, pointed out that many former senior officials have visited Taiwan over the years with and without support from the U.S. government. “It’s a very nice delegation, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about sending a bunch of private citizens to Taiwan, even private citizens like these,” she told Nikkei Asia.
“The more significant acts from a substantive perspective are the freedom of navigation exercises and the steady presence of U.S. and other countries’ vessels in and around the straits, arms sales packages and meaningful maintenance of official relations between current representatives of both governments,” said Currie, now a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.
The U.S. government maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan authorities and recognizes only Beijing diplomatically. But Currie said there needs to be a change in approach: “The weird and artificial constraints on who travels to Taiwan, who meets with who, and which Taiwanese travel to the U.S. for how long are all totally self-imposed and are not, in fact, in the Taiwan Relations Act, the Shanghai Communique or any other legally binding document.”
Pan Chao-min of Tunghai University noted the timing of Mullen’s visit being right before Pompeo’s, who served as Trump’s top diplomat and is seen as a possible contender for the presidency. The academic attributed the twin visits to party politics in the U.S. as the 2024 election looms.
“Pompeo wants to harvest the impression that he is the one protecting Taiwan. Would Biden not understand this? Biden hurried to send off a delegation to show that ‘the current security of Taiwan is shouldered by me, not Pompeo,'” he told Nikkei Asia. Pompeo is expected to meet Tsai and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and give a speech at a local think tank during his tour.