The top Taiwanese diplomat in Washington made a passionate plea Monday for U.S. leaders to more vocally support Taiwan’s inclusion in key Western-backed institutions on the world stage — especially as the tiny island democracy engages in increasingly complex economic ties with China.
“The more we engage with mainland China, the more support we need from the United States,” Shen Lyu-Shun told editors and reporters in an exclusive interview at The Washington Times. Mr. Shen has served as Taiwan’s top representative in Washington since April.
While China and Taiwan remain far apart on political, military and diplomatic issues — with Taipei’s pluralistic democracy standing in stark contrast to communist Beijing — Mr. Shen touted how recent years have brought full-blown integration between the two sides on other levels.
“Economic, social and cultural integration has already happened across the Taiwan Straits,” he said, noting that trade between China and Taiwan last year totaled $167 billion, that 4 million Chinese tourists visit Taiwan each year, and that nearly 40 percent of Taiwan’s trade is with the mainland.
But contentious aspects of the relationship remain, particularly since the government in Beijing appears less than eager to see any star shine brighter than its own on the regional stage. Mr. Shen said that as the two nations move closer, their governments inevitably will have to address sensitive issues.
“From now, we will probably have to talk about not just the economic issues, but some of the political issues and diplomatic issues because they’re trying to block us internationally,” he said.
That is where the United States could lend a highly influential hand, Mr. Shen said, suggesting that more public backing by Washington may be vital to Taiwan’s ability to assume a leadership role in relations with China.
“Mainland China is our largest land of opportunities, but they are the largest single, potential source of threat for us,” he said, reiterating a message pushed in recent years by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.
“How do we maximize opportunities [and] minimize the threat? That takes a lot of very skillful manipulation,” said Mr. Shen. “Support from this country will make us more confident as we engage with China.”
He displayed a generally jovial posture in discussing the matter, saying the process of easing tension between Beijing and Taipei likely will unfold slowly over the coming 60 or so years. “Maybe someday we can absorb them,” he joked at one point during his visit to The Times on Monday.
On a more serious note, Mr. Shen suggested that Taiwan risks becoming stuck in China’s shadow and that U.S. leaders could do more to help legitimize the island nation’s status on the world stage.
He noted, for instance, that he is a “representative” rather than an “ambassador” in Washington, specifically because Taiwan does not have full diplomatic ties with the United States.
“We have suffered from our diplomatic status. Around the world there are still only 22 countries diplomatically recognizing us,” he said. “There are 171 [that recognized mainland China], and no country in the world has managed to recognize both at the same time.”
Since Taiwan is not a member of most of the world’s international governing bodies, including the United Nations, Mr. Shen said his nation often is left out of key discussions about international norms.
“Sometimes we are not even in the room,” said Mr. Shen, adding that “we hope the Americans will continue supporting us, not just selling us the defense articles.”
The slowness with which successive administrations in Washington have moved toward allowing the sale of fighter jets and submarines to Taiwan remains an issue of frustration in Taipei, he said. But he suggested that a more pressing issue centers on being included in U.S.-backed initiatives such as the push to create a vast Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Mr. Shen suggested that Taiwanese leaders are all too aware that they have not been included in talks toward the formation of the TPP.
“If the TPP is going to succeed, altogether there will probably be 52 countries involved and Taiwan would have been the sixth largest,” he said. “Can you imagine an organization of 52 countries but you don’t have No. 6?”
“It’s not right. It’s not complete,” he said. “Hopefully we can be invited to the next round of negotiations.”
With such factors as a backdrop, Mr. Shen said Taiwan’s citizens are generally more focused today on developing ties with China than with the United States.
“The relationship with China is the No. 1 issue for our people,” he said.
Taiwan’s world-class corporations do business with the United States, both through Taiwan and through mainland China, where they have established many factories that export to the United States.
Boasting strengths in semiconductors, smartphones, LCDs and other high-tech products, Mr. Shen estimated about a third of China’s electronics exports to the U.S. are made in factories owned by Taiwanese businesses such as FoxConn.
Taiwanese businesses are also investing heavily in China to exploit its potential as a platform for their exports.
The investment also is growing in other markets, said Mr. Shen, who said Taiwan now ranks seventh among the world’s nations in terms of outbound investment. “Today, if you go to the city of Almaty, in Kazakhstan, you’ll find all of the streetlights in the capital city now being replaced with Taiwan-made LED lights,” he said. “I can give you a long list of what we’ve been doing.”
But he noted that Taiwan finds itself increasingly in the position of competing on the global stage against other nations on China’s periphery, specifically South Korea. The catch is South Korea is recognized by most of the world’s major governing bodies and has, as a result, had a significantly easier time securing far-flung partnerships.
“Taiwan, because of our diplomatic status, we need to catch up,” said Mr. Sen, adding that apart from its economic framework agreement with mainland China, Taiwan so far has signed only two free trade agreements: one with New Zealand and another with Singapore.
Despite such factors, Mr. Shen noted how his nation of fewer than 25 million people is the 11th-largest trading partner of the U.S. Taiwan outranks India, which is home to more than 1 billion people, and does more trade with the United States than every European nation other than Great Britain, Germany and France.
Taiwan’s economic relationship with the United States, which runs an $8 billion trade deficit with the Asian tiger, centers mostly on electronics and technology trade. But Taiwan is also one of the largest buyers of U.S. grains and other agricultural exports and remains a key market for U.S. defense technology, such as F-16 warplanes.
The most recent statistics approved by the Taiwanese government show total U.S.-Taiwanese trade topped $33 billion during the first half of 2014, with more than $13 billion consisting of U.S. goods sold in Taiwan. Crunch those numbers, said Mr. Sen, and they mean as many as 300,000 U.S. jobs depend on trade with Taiwan.
“We hope we can do more,” he said, adding that Taiwan hopes to reach a formalized bilateral free trade agreement with Washington “sooner than later.”