The recent release of State Department guidelines covering "unofficial" relations with Taiwan seems to have generated quite a bit of media coverage (see today's Taipei Times for one example). Henry Chen, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has it about right:
“The same guideline is circulated around the same time each year to all the foreign embassies and US government posts. It was nothing new,” ministry spokesman Henry Chen (陳銘政) said, adding that Taiwan has suggested Washington stop repeating the same gesture each year to avoid misunderstandings. “Some people, when they hear there is a new guideline, they might misinterpret that the US has adopted new policies on Taiwan, which is not the case,” he said.
The MOFA spokesman has a good point. It is kind of silly to retransmit what in effect are the same guidelines year after year. The media quotes unnamed critics as saying this year's document is more restrictive than previous ones. One example: "the new guideline specifically bars the display of the Republic of China flag on US premises, a condition not listed in the 2001 guideline, critics said." Maybe true that the 2001 State Department guidance didn't have that restriction. But maybe the 1985, 1993, 1999, and 2004 versions did.
Anyway, most in the government who deal with Taiwan know the self imposed rules. They stick to them almost to a fault. Reason why a staff officer on the Taiwan Coordination staff may have put the language back in this year is to send a reminder to some organization that may have violated one of these long-established yet bizarre commandments sometime within the last several months. So, rule is "thou shalt not fly the ROC flag." Breaking these rules can be fun, by the way. If you get caught, though, prepare to be castigated by Guidelines Police.
Beyond this, here's a rough list of other dos and don'ts, whether in the guidelines or not.
1) Starting with the most basic, there will be no visits of officials with a rank of Deputy Assistant Secretary-level or higher from the Department of State and Department of Defense. And there will be no general/flag officer visits. Exceptions can be made with the approval of the Secretary of State, presumably in consultation with the National Security Advisor and probably the President himself these days.
And there have been plenty of exceptions. First, it should be noted that the under the Clinton administration, there were at least five Cabinet-level officials who visited Taiwan. This was an outcome from the 1994 Taiwan Policy Review. And how many under the Bush administration? None come to mind. Under the Clinton administration, there was a DoD Deputy Assistant Secretary who visited Taiwan - Andy Hoehn. And the Bush administration? None come to mind. However, State Department did send one Deputy Assistant Secretary level official under the Bush administration - Don Keyser. Whoops. Actually twice, but the second time time didn't count since it was a private visit. And State/NSC Staff did arrange to send one general officer to Taiwan in the Bush administration. Of course, what should have been cause for celebration turned out to be an unpleasant occasion. President Bush sent a two-star Marine - a great American - to send a warning to the DPP administration.
But the Senior Director for Asia within the National Security Council (NSC) staff, now Dennis Wilder, and before him Mike Green, Jim Moriarty, Torkel Patterson, Ken Lieberthal, Sandy Kristoff, Stanley Roth, Doug Paal, Jim Kelly, etc, etc before him, have been considered to be Assistant Secretary-level positions and have been able to travel to Taiwan with few restrictions. Of course, they all have had the President behind them, so that helps a bit.
2) Speaking of private visits, another rule has been that U.S. government people who do travel to Taiwan are indeed unofficial and private. In fact, they are there as AIT consultants. And all visits to Taiwan by U.S. government personnel must be scrutinized and approved by the Taiwan Coordination Staff.
3) There are no Taiwan "officials" - only "authorities."
4) It is the policy of the United States that there is no "Republic of China." Only "Taiwan." There used to be an ROC before 1979, but it disappeared. The implication is that the ROC is an illegitimate regime? Regardless, uttering words like "ROC officials said..." are enough to earn six months confinement by the Guidelines Police. And, by the way, Taiwan nor the ROC is a country. It may be a new democracy, but the ROC is not a country.
5) All correspondence should be on plain white paper and sent through AIT channels. And no formal titles. If for whatever reason a memo with letterhead and titles does get sent over to AIT for transmittal, it doesn't really matter. They can retype it onto AIT letterhead and delete the titles. They can even edit and correct misspellings. No biggie. One side rule to memos and correspondence. There shall be no formal thank you notes sent to senior Taiwan authorities for their contributions to America in the global war on terrorism. Nevermind that Taiwan gave more financial and other assistance in kind to the United States than China and most other members of the international community.
6) Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense shall not come within 50 miles of Washington DC, if they can can get visas at all. And there are to be no meetings between Taiwan authorities (have to get that language right) in the White House or the main State Department building in Foggy Bottom. The Palestinian Liberation Organization's Yasser Arafat or Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams though? No problem and with honors.
I'm sure there are many more quirks in the unofficial U.S.-Taiwan relationship. They all demonstrate the strength of bureaucratic inertia and an amazing lack of courage, decency, and respect for a long time friend and democracy. And in some cases, restrictions such as not allowing general/flag officer visits to Taiwan have a direct relationship with Taiwan's ability to defend itself. The mentoring and knowledge diffusion that goes on with frequent senior-level interactions with counterparts in other military establishments around the world are invaluable. There is much, much more senior level military officer interaction with counterparts in the Chinese People's Liberation Army than with Taiwan. Which side of the Taiwan Strait needs frequent senior level interaction more?
No visits to Foggy Bottom, but meeting in a coffee shop a block down is OK. What difference does it make? No formal titles to memos? What is this - plausible deniability? And why does the Senior Asia Director within NSC -- an Assistant Secretary-level position -- get to travel to Taiwan but not his counterpart within State? And why would NSC/State direct a two-star general from the Pentagon to travel to Taiwan to dress down a democratically elected president, but not routinize such visits to bring Taiwan's defense establishment out of its isolated shell? Who knows, more senior level interaction may make a big difference in Taiwan's ability to defend itself.
Bottom line is that all these silly rules are self-imposed, based on subjective judgments, and intended to demonstrate the unofficial nature of our relationship with Taiwan. They are driven by fear of China. Would either an Obama or McCain administration be willing to review these rules? Probably not, but it's not too early to start putting a bug in their ears.