Pence in Asia: A Strategically Significant Week for the US, Taiwan, and China

This article first appeared in Taiwan’s Do Post.

Readers in Taiwan are understandably consumed with constant coverage of the important May 24 elections. It would be a mistake, however, to miss the significant, even historic, developments that unfolded over the course of US Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Asia.

According to the Vice President’s spokesperson, Pence’s objectives for this visit were to “reaffirm the President’s commitment to the final, fully verified denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula... [and] deliver the message that authoritarianism, aggression, and the disregard for other nations’ sovereignty by any nation in the Indo-Pacific will not be tolerated by the United States.” And he certainly did as promised.

Vice President Pence has proven to be authoritative and effective in articulating a restoration of realism in the US approach to China. His speech at the Hudson Institute together with his remarks at the APEC Summit offer a comprehensive assessment of the challenges posed by China and strategic case for cooperation with America.

With clarity and firmness, Pence summed up the value proposition to Asia-Pacific leaders as follows:

“Know that the United States offers a better option. We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don’t coerce or compromise your independence. The United States deals openly, fairly. We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road. When you partner with us, we partner with you, and we all prosper.”

How did China respond? With “tantrum diplomacy” as Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin put it in his compelling assessment of the APEC summit.  They bullied the host nation. Allegedly, they interfered with journalists’ ability to cover the Pence speech. And they forced the summit to conclude without a communique for the first time, by refusing to join all others in agreeing to “fight protectionism including all unfair trade practices.”

In short, China showed its true colors under the leadership of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. Rogin put it well, “This is what the Chinese government is today: pushy, insecure, out of control and with no desire to pretend anymore they will play by the rules the international community has been operating under for decades.”

As the Trump and Xi approaches to Asia collided at APEC, others may have been concerned about collateral damage. As the old African proverb goes, “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” However, in this case, Chinese “tantrum diplomacy” actually encouraged more substantive bilateral meetings between Vice President Pence and other APEC delegation leaders, including Morris Chang of Taiwan.

Given that Taiwan is a full member of APEC, with rights equal to other members, it was not surprising the Vice President would take such a meeting. Morris Chang’s professional background made him uniquely suited to address intellectual property rights (IPR) protection as well as the broader challenges posed by Communist China as outlined in Pence’s remarks.

According to the Vice President, the conversation was about economics and trade. This Administration has proven they are committed to doing what is in the best interest of the United States - including the potential for a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan.

While meetings between delegation leaders at APEC should be routine, given the “Orwellian nonsense” that is China’s effort to pretend Taiwan is subordinate to its sovereignty, it was an important step forward for a sitting Vice President of the United States to meet with Taiwan’s head of delegation at APEC.

As Taiwan voters go to the polls this Saturday, they do so in the context of a changing Indo-Pacific region. Thanks to China’s “tantrum diplomacy” it stands apart from all other APEC members. Thanks to Vice President Pence, the people of Taiwan have been treated with dignity and their substantive proposal for a bilateral trade agreement will be presented to President Trump for consideration. All in all a very good week for the interests of the Taiwanese people as they contemplate continuity vs. change in this weekend’s elections.