Taiwan’s opposition KMT plans US presence to build profile, win ‘more American friends’

  • Observers say proposal was part of discussions within the mainland-friendly party on its 2020 presidential election strategy
  • Ruling DPP has maintained an office in the US for many years and has had the backing of US-based groups supporting Taiwan independence
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2019, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2019, 11:07pm

Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang may set up an official presence in the United States, possibly a foundation, in a bid to rally support ahead of the self-ruled island’s presidential elections next year.

Party officials last week said the proposal was part of discussions within the mainland-friendly KMT on the 2020 strategy following its landslide victory in November’s local government polls that saw it take control of 15 of Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties.

According to observers, the move is needed to boost the party’s visibility in America and it could also help its election candidates test the water in the US, amid Taipei’s complicated triangular relations with Washington and Beijing.

With the ruling Democratic Progressive Party planning to send a group of lawmakers to Washington to meet members of Congress and other officials next month, they said it had become more urgent for the KMT to have a presence in the country.

Beijing tells Washington to abide by ‘one China’ principle after US Navy’s Taiwan passage

During the local elections, Washington voiced support for the independence-leaning DPP, echoing its accusation that Beijing had used disinformation and other means to try to sabotage the polls.

That made it all the more important for the KMT to build its profile in the US ahead of the 2020 presidential race, according to Charles I-hsin Chen, a non-resident senior fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies, a pro-KMT think tank in Washington.

“The KMT needs more American friends, while Americans need to learn about Taiwan in a more accurate manner,” Chen said.

While Beijing is wary of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s cross-strait policy, calling it an “incomplete test paper”, Washington is concerned the KMT’s mainland-friendly approach will not be in the interests of its own China strategy.

Relations across the Taiwan Strait have soured since Tsai took office in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle. Beijing, which sees the island as a wayward province subject to eventual reunification, by force if necessary, has since cut official communication with Taipei and ramped up diplomatic and military pressure on the island.

Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 but maintains a strategic alliance with Taiwan that includes the sale of arms to the island and a pledge to protect it in the event of military conflict. The US has also approved bills allowing high-level official exchanges and military cooperation with the island as part of its strategy to deal with Beijing.

The KMT has had an official presence in the US before. It opened an office in Washington in 2004, but it was closed after the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou was elected Taiwanese president in 2008 and made Jason Yuan, the office head, his administration’s first de facto ambassador to the United States.

The party set up an international affairs department in 2014 to handle US and other foreign affairs, but that was merged with another department the following year, leaving it with no direct communication channel with politicians in America.

Poll boost for Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen after tough stand against Beijing

In contrast, the DPP has maintained an office in Washington for many years and has had the backing of a number of US-based groups supporting Taiwan independence that date back to the island’s martial law era from 1949 to 1987.

One of those is the Global Taiwan Institute, a think tank set up with donations from pro-DPP ethnic Taiwanese soon after Tsai was sworn in as president in May 2016. It has already drawn recognition from US officials, including the de facto ambassador to Taiwan, James Moriarty, and Ivan Kanapathy, the National Security Council director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, both of whom spoke at its annual symposium on US-Taiwan ties in September.

A DPP official who declined to be named said this recognition showed that “the party’s policy of building up its connection with various US sectors is correct”.

He said the party had also had strong support from the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a non-profit group set up by pro-DPP ethnic Taiwanese in Washington to help it lobby US politicians. The association played an important role in founding the party in 1986 and gaining the support of US politicians to speak for Taiwan and help stop the then authoritarian KMT government from purging dissidents.

According to Chen, KMT regimes between 1950 and 2000 put a great deal of emphasis on US-Taiwan relations, but it was handled by diplomats rather than the party’s own representatives in the US.

He said while an office or foundation in the US was unlikely to be as effective as any of the DPP’s long-established groups there, having at least a small KMT presence in Washington would be better than nothing.

It could also help the party in the run-up to the 2020 presidential race by communicating KMT policy, especially on cross-strait issues, he said.

“If the situation remains that the information is only coming from the DPP administration or institutions in Washington linked to the DPP, it can only be a bad thing for America,” Chen said, adding that a one-sided view could lead to misjudgment and ill-informed decisions.

Former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou appears in video as ‘shopkeeper for a day’ in bookstore

Eric Huang, former head of the KMT’s foreign media and international affairs section, said Washington was keen to hear about the party’s cross-strait policy, especially after its gains in the local government polls.

“The choice as to who heads this new office is thus very important,” he said, adding that the person would have to be well versed in US-Taiwan relations and cross-strait issues and have good connections in Washington.

Huang, who has been the KMT’s liaison with the US in the past decade and now teaches international affairs at Ming Chuan University in Taipei, said the party needed to step up communication efforts so that it could have its voice heard in Washington.

After a visit to the US last month, KMT lawmaker Johnny Chiang said the party needed to convey a clear stance on US-Taiwan-Beijing relations to Washington. “It needs to emphasise that the KMT is pro-America, that it is conciliatory to China instead of pro-China,” he said.

Chiang added that the party also needed to send the message that cross-strait ties and US-Taiwan ties were not a “zero-sum game” and the KMT did not want to improve relations with Beijing at the expense of the US.

KMT politicians including former New Taipei mayor Eric Chu, party chairman Wu Den-yih and former KMT parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng all have plans to visit the United States in the coming months, according to media reports.

Wang Kung-yi, a professor of political science at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said although Washington had always stated it would not get involved in Taiwan’s elections, it needed to understand where all presidential candidates stood on US and cross-strait policies.

“That’s the ‘test answers’ these politicians, whether they are from the DPP or the KMT, need to give to Washington,” he said.