US presses Taiwan opposition candidate over likely China plans

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The top US liaison to Taiwan asked the opposition’s presidential candidate about how he would navigate relations with Beijing if he wins next year’s election, according to people familiar with the meeting, as polls show a tight race between the key parties.

Laura Rosenberger, the new chair of the American Institute in Taiwan, which serves as the de facto US embassy, sat with New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih for dinner on June 7 — part of a series of meetings she had last week with key candidates in the January 2024 race.

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The meeting with Hou — relatively unknown in US policy circles — was his first with Rosenberger since she took the chairmanship of AIT in March.

Hou’s bid with the Kuomintang, a party that backs closer ties with China, raises the stakes for US engagement and could put the Biden administration’s pledge of neutrality to a test. Beijing makes no such promise: it harshly criticizes and has slapped sanctions on key figures in the current Taiwan government, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, for its pro-independence views.

The latest poll shows the election could be tight. While Tsai’s DPP has the most support at 24.6 percent, it is closely followed by the upstart Taiwan People’s Party at 22.2 percent and the KMT at 20.4 percent. The June 12-13 survey by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation marks the first time three parties have garnered over 20 percent.

Whoever wins will likely help set the tone for US-China relations for years to come. Rosenberger stuck with the US promise of neutrality in her meetings, even joking about it with Hou at dinner when she was asked whether she preferred to order pork or beef. Rosenberger responded by saying she wanted both, indicating that the US wouldn’t take sides, according to people familiar with the gathering.

Officials at AIT didn’t respond to a request for comment about Rosenberger’s visit before publication.

Addressing cross-strait relations, Hou said he would resume some Taiwan-China exchanges that have been stalled on issues such as education cooperation and joint crime-fighting, according to the people. He also stressed his commitment to the US partnership to jointly promote regional peace, as well as the importance of having defense capabilities for the purpose of deterrence, the people said.

That kind of agenda could help calm turbulent US-China ties if Hou wins, said Liao Yu-shih, assistant professor at Tamkang University’s diplomacy and international relations department. But, she added, Washington will want to be assured that Hou has “a clear stance on China and international policy, because now there are question marks.

That nervousness can already be seen in Washington. In a potential rehash of the “Who Lost China?” debate in the US in the 1950s, some Republicans have already signaled that a KMT victory would essentially be a defeat for the US.

In an interview with Japan’s Nikkei last month, Michael McCaul — the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — said that if a “preferred candidate” of China wins, he or she “essentially will be their installed puppet candidate.” McCaul — who was sanctioned by Beijing after visiting Taiwan this year — didn’t mention Hou directly in the interview. He added that a victory by a candidate Beijing doesn’t like will probably lead to “a more aggressive response by China.”

McCaul’s office declined to comment.

Besides Hou, the top candidates in the presidential race include Tsai’s vice president, Lai Ching-te, and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, the candidate for Taiwan People’s Party. Rosenberger met with them as well during her week-long trip.

Lai reiterated his goal of maintaining a peaceful and stable status-quo across the Taiwan Strait and said his administration would continue Tsai’s policies, according to Kolas Yotaka, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Presidential Office. Lai and Rosenberger also discussed economic ties, with Lai saying he hoped for some sort of trade agreement between the two sides, according to Kolas.

During the four-hour visit in Tainan City, Lai took Rosenberger to a museum and they watched a violin performance before visiting a local temple. Since this was the second time Rosenberger met with Lai since she took office, the trip was more about strengthening their personal relationship and deepening mutual trust, Kolas said.

Blinken ties

Over a two-hour dinner, the TPP’s Ko and Rosenberger talked about the impact of a trade agreement signed under the US-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade, and Ko’s impressions from his recent visit to Japan, according to a statement from the Taiwan People’s Party.

A former member of Biden’s National Security Council with close ties to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Rosenberger’s leadership of AIT is a sign of how vital the US views relations with Taipei. Under the “One China policy” dating back to 1972, Washington doesn’t have official diplomatic relations or exchange ambassadors with Taiwan. But it does have an active unofficial relationship and the head of the AIT serves as the main interlocutor between Washington and Taipei.

Instead of naming a career diplomat with less political experience to the AIT post, Rosenberger’s recent background as a top Biden foreign policy aide makes her stand out, said Kharis Templeman, a researcher specializing in Taiwan at the Hoover Institution in California.

It’s a “signal, both publicly and within the US government, that the White House is deeply invested in the US-Taiwan relationship and actively working to shape its direction over the next few months,” he said.

Read more: US confirms Blinken’s trip to Beijing

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