TAIPEI (Reuters) – The United States unveiled a new $256 million representative office in Taiwan’s capital on Tuesday, a de facto embassy that underscores Washington’s strategic ties with the democratic, self-ruled island as it faces escalating tensions with China.
Washington cut diplomatic ties with Taipei in 1979 but remains the island’s strongest ally and sole foreign arms supplier. It opened the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) to conduct relations between the two sides after severing ties.
In comments certain to rile Beijing, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said the new complex was a reaffirmation of both sides commitment to a “vital relationship”.
“The friendship between Taiwan and the U.S. has never been more promising. The great story of Taiwan-U.S. relations remains to be filled with the efforts of those that will one day occupy this building,” Tsai said.
So long as both sides stood together, nothing could come between them, she added.
The new complex, a major upgrade from the low-key military building the AIT had used for decades, will serve as the representative office later this summer, said AIT Director Kin Moy.
Marie Royce, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, said at a ceremony to mark the unveiling that the complex was a symbol of the strength and vibrancy of the U.S.-Taiwan partnership.
“We have faced many trials along this journey, but we have risen to the challenge at every turn, knowing that our shared commitment to democracy would see us through,” said Royce, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Taiwan since 2015.
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry said they had lodged “stern representations” with Washington about the new building and the visit of the senior U.S. diplomat.
“The United States sending officials to Taiwan under any excuses is in serious violation of the ‘one China’ principle,” Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said Tuesday. “It interferes with China’s internal affairs and negatively impacts China-US relations.”
China Ma Xiaoguang
“We urge the US to abide by its pledge to China and correct its mistake to avoid harming China-US relations and peace in the Taiwan Strait.”
The sprawling new site occupies 6.5 hectares, including Chinese gardens, in Taipei’s Neihu district. AIT’s Taipei office has nearly 500 American and local employees, while its Kaohsiung branch has more than 30 staff.
The American Institute in Taiwan, as the de facto US embassy in Taipei is called, was officially declared open Tuesday morning, in a ceremony attended by senior US diplomats and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
In an opening address, Assistant US Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce described the sprawling five-story complex, which cost $255 million to build, as much more than mere bricks and mortar.
The ceremony was attended by high-ranking Taiwan officials and senior business executives, including Morris Chang, the former chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC), the world’s biggest contract chip maker.
China claims self-ruled Taiwan under its “one China” policy and Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring what it sees as a wayward province under its control.
China’s hostility towards Taiwan has grown since President Tsai was elected in 2016. Beijing suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
Trump and Ms Tsai
The Global Times, a widely-read Chinese state-run newspaper, said China should warn Taiwan and the United States against any provocation.
“The mainland must continue to build up its deterrence against Taiwanese authorities, making them know that the U.S. cannot be their savior,” it said in an editorial on the opening of the new office.
Taiwan recently lost two diplomatic allies after they switched ties to China, while some international companies have changed their websites to show the island’s designation as being part of China.
China has also stepped up military drills, sending bombers and jet fighters on exercises near the island that Taipei has denounced as intimidation.
Despite condemnations from China, the US continues to sell advanced weapons to the island under the Taiwan Relations Act for its self-defense against a much bigger Chinese military.
In the past few months, the Trump administration also angered Beijing by authorizing US manufacturers to sell submarine technology to Taiwan, as well as enacting the Taiwan Travel Act to encourage official visits between the US and the island.
China and Taiwan — officially the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, respectively — split in 1949 following the Communist victory on the mainland after a civil war.
The two sides have been governed separately since, though a shared cultural and linguistic heritage largely endures — with Mandarin spoken as the official language in both places.
Although both Beijing and Taipei view the island as part of China, neither government recognizes the legitimacy of the opposing side.
There is a strong pro-independence sentiment within Taiwan’s current ruling party led by Tsai, prompting Beijing to harden its stance and stress its long-standing promise to retake the island by force if necessary.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader in decades who recently vowed to safeguard “every inch of our great motherland’s territory,” ordered ramped-up military exercises around the island in recent months.
These included live-fire drills, sailing China’s only aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, and dispatching its fighters and bombers for “encirclement patrols.”