When the Biden administration deployed a sitting American ambassador to Taiwan, marking the first time such a senior US envoy visited the self-governing island in over 42 years, the move clearly aimed to send a signal to China.
Last weekend, US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland accompanied Palau President Surangel Whipps to Taiwan, ostensibly as part of ongoing efforts to expedite pandemic-era travel between Taiwan and Palau. The small island nation is one of the few remaining countries to maintain official diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Yet the broader geopolitical significance of the much-vaunted Hennessey-Niland visit wasn’t lost on China, which almost immediately doubled down on its intimidation tactics against the island, which Beijing considers a renegade province that must be incorporated with the mainland.
The day before the US envoy’s visit, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed as many as 20 fighter jets into Taiwanese airspace, the largest incursion of its kind in recent memory. Just days later, the PLA sent 10 other aircraft, including Shenyang J-16 fighters and Chengdu J-10’s, into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).
The Donald Trump administration came under fire for its unilateralist and protectionist policies, an approach that degraded US alliances in Asia and Europe.
But from Taiwan’s perspective, the Trump years were a golden era for bilateral ties, as Washington rapidly expanded defense assistance to and high-level contacts with the self-governing island, highlighted by the visit last year of then-health secretary Alex Azar.
At one point, even former US ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft and then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who dramatically loosened legal restrictions on bilateral diplomatic exchanges with the island, contemplated visiting Taiwan in their twilight days in office.
Now firmly in office, the Biden administration has made it clear that it won’t abandon Taiwan in any bid to reset relations with China. During his confirmation hearing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, also known as Biden’s “alter ego”, went so far as to describe Taiwan as a “country” and vowed to create “more space for contacts” with Taipei.
When China recently pressed Paraguay, among few countries to maintain formal ties with Taiwan, to shift its diplomatic stance in exchange for Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccines, the US quickly made a call to the Latin American country to maintain a united front.
As early as January, the new US administration signaled its commitment to maintaining robust ties with Taiwan by making the unprecedented decision of inviting de facto Taiwanese ambassador to the US Hsiao Bi-khim to Biden’s inauguration.
Soon thereafter, Joseph Young, the US acting ambassador to Japan, held a meeting with his Taiwanese counterpart in Tokyo, which was prominently announced on Twitter.
The deployment of US ambassador to Palau Hennessey-Niland to Taiwan was just the latest manifestation of the Biden administration’s proactive efforts to secure maximum possible diplomatic space for the self-governing island.
A veteran diplomat with more than three decades of service in the US State Department, Hennessey-Niland has been a staunch supporter of greater diplomatic support for Taiwan.
During his confirmation hearing in 2019, he publicly supported the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI), which calls on the US and its allies to mitigate Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation amid China’s rising intimidation.
“I know that here in Taiwan people describe the relationship between the United States and Taiwan as real friends, real progress and I believe that description applies to the three countries – the United States, Taiwan and Palau,” said Hennessey-Niland during his meetings with top Taiwanese officials, where he likewise referred to Taiwan as a “country.”