US sends senior envoy in symbolic boost of support to Taiwan

Keith Krach's visit comes as the US and China remain at loggerheads over trade, the pandemic and Beijing's territorial ambitions

Undersecretary of State Keith Krach will land in Taiwan on Thursday
Undersecretary of State Keith Krach will land in Taiwan on Thursday Credit: Heo Ran/Reuters

A top US diplomat will land in Taiwan on Thursday, marking the second high-ranking visit of a senior Trump administration official to Taipei in two months, at a time of historically low ties between Washington and Beijing. 

Keith Krach, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, will attend a memorial service this weekend for former President Lee Teng-hui, known as Taiwan’s “father of democracy”.

The symbolic move coincides with a call from Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, for the international community to defend the region and his country - which was “on the frontline of defending democracies” - from “expansionist” Chinese actions. 

“We feel that like-minded countries or fellow democracies need to pay more attention to this area and come to each other's help so that China's expansionist motivation can be deterred,” Mr Wu told the France 24 TV station on Wednesday. 

Mr Krach’s trip, which may also include talks to nurture bilateral economic ties, will rile China, which has warned the US on multiple occasions against supporting Taiwan, a democratic island of 24 million, which it claims as its own and seeks to annex and isolate on the global stage. 

The high-level US visit will be a boost to Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen Credit: HOGP/AP

On Thursday, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson - when asked about Mr Krach’s trip - underscored Beijing’s opposition to any official exchanges between Washington and Taipei. A visit to Taipei last month by Alex Azar, the US health secretary, prompted similar pushback. 

The US visit "seriously violates the One-China principle and the provisions of the three Sino-US joint communiques, encourages the arrogance of separatist forces of Taiwan independence and undermines China-US relations, and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait," he said. 

Mr Wang added that China had "lodged solemn representations to the US side." 

The state-owned Global Times went further, predicting in an editorial that Mr Krach’s sortie would bring “misfortune” to Taiwan.

“[The US and Taiwan] keep throwing stones into the water of the Taiwan Straits. But once they go too far, the stones may become torpedoes, increasing the uncertainties in the entire region, as well as the risks of drastic changes in the Taiwan Straits,” it said. 

Mr Krach’s visit sparked speculation in the local media that he may host the “US-Taiwan Economic and Commercial Dialogue”, a new forum to strengthen economic ties and boost cooperation in key industries including semiconductors and 5G technology. 

The dialogue was announced at the end of August by David Stilwell, assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, who appointed Mr Krach to take the lead, pushing forward on priorities such as restructuring medical product supply chains and expanding infrastructure and energy sector collaboration. 

However, neither Taipei - which has long sought a free trade deal with the US - or Washington has made any direct mention of economic talks during this week’s meetings, which analysts have suggested reflects caution about pushing Beijing too far. 

A press release issued by the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy, referred only to the memorial service, adding: “The United States honours President Lee’s legacy by continuing our strong bonds with Taiwan and its strong democracy through shared political and economic values.”

In a separate move, the US plans to sell as many as seven major weapons systems, including mines, cruise missiles and drones to Taiwan, four people familiar with the discussions told Reuters.

The pursuit of seven sales at once would be a departure from previous US policies, which spaced out the supply of weapons to Taiwan in order to minimise tensions with Beijing. 

The bulk sale of US military hardware to Taiwan, if it goes ahead, will ramp up pressure on China at a time when Chinese fighter jets and naval ships have been accused by Taipei of using regular sorties around the island as an intimidation strategy. 

An image of a Chinese Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft entering Taiwan's Air Identification Zone Credit: Taiwanese MInistry of Defence/EPA-EFE-Shutterstock

The Taiwanese defence ministry said on Thursday that two Chinese anti-submarine aircraft had entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone on Wednesday before being warned to leave by the air force. Similar incursions have escalated in recent months. 

Taiwan is a key ally for the US in the Asia Pacific region as relations between Washington and Beijing plummet over a lingering trade war, accusations of spying and bitter exchanges over the coronavirus pandemic. 

The island, which has its own democratically elected government, military and foreign policy, sits on the so-called “first island chain” that runs from Russia’s Kuril Islands to the Malay Peninsula, and is integral to US military doctrine and influence in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Washington has been eager to include it in creating a military counterbalance to Chinese forces, building on an effort known within the Pentagon as “Fortress Taiwan”.