Taiwan Welcomes Pompeo While Watching Ukraine

The former secretary of state’s visit became part of discussions on Taiwan about U.S. support amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A visit by former Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Taiwan came with much fanfare. Pompeo arrived in Taiwan on Wednesday for a four-day visit.

As part of his visit, Pompeo met with top Taiwanese government officials including President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President William Lai, receiving the Order of Brilliant Star with Special Grand Cordon from Tsai for promoting Taiwan-U.S. ties. Other expressions of welcome included skyscraper Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan, lighting up with a message for Pompeo and a billboard put up by a city councilor candidate in Taichung, Taiwan’s second-largest city.

Pompeo’s visit is generally thought to be part of a move aimed at an upcoming U.S. presidential run to challenge incumbent Joe Biden. The Tsai administration’s rolling out the red carpet for Pompeo would be aimed at hedging bets, in case Biden is unsuccessful in his reelection bid, and Pompeo or another Republican becomes the next president. In particular, the Tsai administration touted actions by Pompeo to strengthen relations with Taiwan such as lifting restrictions on diplomatic meetings by U.S. government officials and Taiwanese officials shortly before leaving office.

During Pompeo’s visit, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) chair Mark Liu thanked Pompeo via video call for his support of TSMC’s planned Arizona fab. Taiwanese company TSMC is the world’s largest chipmaker.

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For the most part, Pompeo’s visit has been uneventful. A press conference with Pompeo had the moderator read pre-prepared questions submitted three days prior to the event, rather than open questions from the media, possibly to avoid uncomfortable questions about the Trump administration’s close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The event was also abruptly cut to 30 minutes instead of lasting a full hour.

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Some of the questions touched on Ukraine, with Pompeo condemning Russia’s actions.

What surprised, however, was a statement by Pompeo expressing support for the United States recognizing Taiwan as the Republic of China. “The United States government should immediately take necessary and long overdue steps to do the right and obvious thing: that is to offer the Republic of China, Taiwan, America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country,” Pompeo said.

This statement closely echoed the Tsai administration’s argument that Taiwan has no need to declare independence because it is already an independent country by the name of the Republic of China (hence why Tsai is best described as supporting the status quo rather than being “pro-independence”). It is unusual for U.S. politicians to be attentive to nuances of the “ROC independence” versus “Taiwanese independence” debate in Taiwan, raising the possibility that Pompeo was largely following the Tsai administration’s script.

Apart from hedging bets, it is possible that the Tsai administration was hoping to pressure the Biden administration to take more concrete action in support of Taiwan by playing up the Pompeo visit, or voicing its preferred position through Pompeo. The Biden administration officially continues to adhere to the United States’ One China policy in spite of notable flip-flops by Biden himself.

The Biden administration dispatched a bipartisan delegation of former defense officials to visit Taiwan shortly before Pompeo’s visit to reassure Taiwan of strong ties amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But there was significantly greater focus on the Pompeo visit, whether that be in terms of media coverage or the Tsai administration’s trumpeting of the affair, to the extent one wonders if this could be considered a low-key snub. Pompeo is, after all, a private citizen and not a member of government at present.

The Pompeo visit was scheduled before the invasion of Ukraine took place, while the delegation of former defense officials seems to have been quickly arranged in the fallout of the Ukraine crisis. Nevertheless, the Ukraine war has cast a large shadow in Taiwan over the past weeks.

Taiwan Reacts to the War in Ukraine

Tsai administration officials including Premier Su Tseng-chang have rejected comparisons between Taiwan and Ukraine, even as the implicit link has frequently been raised with calls by politicians for like-minded democracies to take a stand against authoritarian countries. Pan-Green politicians assert that democracies including Taiwan, Asia Pacific countries, and Western countries, should stand against authoritarian countries such as Russia and China.

As Taiwan is on the receiving end of Chinese military threats and faces the possibility of a Chinese invasion, it should not be surprising that many in Taiwan have seen parallels with Ukraine. There has been comparatively less discussion in Taiwan on whether China was aware of Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine ahead of time or whether Beijing was caught by surprise.

It is highly unlikely that China would be able to launch an invasion of Taiwan that was not known in advance through satellite imagery of troops massing on the coasts of China. Nonetheless, to reassure the public, Tsai still raised the country’s alert level. Chinese naval vessels have been spotted near Taiwan’s Orchid Island in the past few days and Chinese weather balloons used by the military have been found in Taiwanese airspace, raising the possibility of grey zone activity. Nevertheless, these developments have not been widely discussed in Taiwan, much as how record-setting Chinese air incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone did not prompt widespread social panic in the past.

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Taiwan has participated in some of the sanctions directed at Moscow, including cutting Russia out of SWIFT. TSMC has announced that it will suspend delivery of semiconductors to Russia. This took place after reports that the Biden administration was in talks with Asia-Pacific allies to cut off semiconductor supplies to Russia.

Likewise, aid to Ukraine includes 27 tons of medical supplies donated by the Tsai administration, and the Taiwanese government setting up a special fund for donations to Ukraine that has already accumulated more than 100 million Taiwanese dollars in donations. Solidarity rallies for Ukraine, including demands for the Taiwanese government to open Taiwan up to Ukrainian refugees, have been held nearly daily in Taipei outside of Russia’s representative office, with high-profile attendees including DPP deputy secretary-general Lin Fei-fan, a former student leader of the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

Generally speaking, the KMT, Taiwan’s main opposition party, has had the more contested position regarding Ukraine. Party chair Eric Chu condemned Russia’s actions. However, former President Ma Ying-jeou claimed that the invasion of Ukraine showed that the United States was unlikely to come to the aid of countries facing invasion, and is more likely to try and supply arms instead rather than directly intervene. Former party chair Hung Hsiu-chu — having recently returned from a trip to Beijing to participate in the opening ceremony of the Olympics — claimed that it was unclear whether Ukraine or Russia was the aggressor.

One can point to a split between comparative moderates and deep Blues in the KMT regarding their views on the Ukraine crisis, with deep Blues seeking to use the situation to question the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan, while moderates have condemned Russia for its actions in a manner that probably is aimed at addressing the party’s pro-China image. Russia may here be used as something of a proxy for China, so KMT can appear less outright pro-unification by criticizing Russia.

Unsurprisingly, there has been increased discussion of Taiwan’s defense after the invasion of Ukraine. Experts have been quick to raise the differences between the two contexts, such as Taiwan’s economic significance to global supply chains, longstanding historical relationship with the U.S., or the difficulties conducting a beachhead invasion of Taiwan.

But strengthening Taiwan’s military reserves is one idea that the Tsai administration claims it will be acting on in the wake of Ukraine, as well as boosting missile manufacturing capacity. KMT legislator Fu Kun-chi, more often in the news for corruption scandals, has been strident in criticisms of the Tsai administration, calling on the Tsai administration to lengthen the military draft. Meanwhile, the DPP continues to criticize KMT legislators, such as former general Wu Sz-huai, for traveling to China to meet with Chinese government officials. The DPP has cited the dangers of having Wu on the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee when he has traveled to China to attend ceremonies with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Vice President William Lai, frequently considered a likely successor to Tsai, has also touted the idea of Taiwan joining the Quad. While Taiwan has suggested interest in partnering with the Quad before, the notion of joining the Quad is far less common.

Furthermore, with the U.S. Trade Representative Office having stated that it plans to increase trade engagement with Taiwan, Taiwan may have a stronger position to angle for trade talks with the U.S., so as to reassure about U.S. support of Taiwan in the wake of the Ukraine war.