TAIPEI – After the massive earthquake and tsunami wrecked Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors on March 11, the UnitedStates evacuated its embassy personnel and, as unconfirmed reports have it, members of the United States Marine Corps to Taiwan. Not everybody believes that Washington’s location choice was as innocent as claimed.
Having switched to formally recognizing the People’s Republic of China in 1979, the United States does not hold diplomatic ties with Taiwan. US military contact and exchange with Taiwan remains a most sensitive issue in US-China relations.
When it become evident that Japan was facing its biggest national
tragedy since World War II, the US was quick to come to aid of its ally and host of US military bases. The US Navy brought out the big guns. Immediately assigned to take part in the relief efforts were the super-carriers USS George Washingtonand USS Ronald Reagan, as well as the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville and the destroyer USS Preble.
The Pacific Command furthermore ordered amphibious assault ship USS Essexand the USS Harpers to abort a Malaysia visit; the dock landing ship USS Tortuga came up from its mother port in Japan’s south, and the command ship USS Blue Ridge called off a voyage to Singapore.
But, seeing no sign that things would turn out well at the badly damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, the US resorted to Plan B for American officials, private citizens and their dependents, who were flown from Japan to Taipei on charter flights.
Among them was staff of the US Embassy, allegedly accompanied by 40 marines. Apart from the protection of the embassy personnel, the soldiers’ mission has reportedly been the safeguarding of highly confidential documents. To house the evacuees, the de facto US Embassy in Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), is said to have rented not fewer than 900 Taipei hotel rooms where a number of the Americans remain residing to this day.
Given Taiwan’s tenuous diplomatic situation, it’s hardly surprising that the evacuation meant the island’s political TV talk shows had a field day.
“The Americans have Kadena air base on Okinawa, so why didn’t they bring the evacuees there?” said talking heads challenging official explanations that Taiwan was chosen because it’s safe, convenient and cheap. “If the wind doesn’t blow radioactive clouds towards Taiwan, then they won’t go to Okinawa either, because it lies in the same direction.”
According to the pundits, apart from China and North Korea, any country in the region would have been a more plausible choice than the island. This is mainly because Beijing certainly wouldn’t like seeing anything with the slightest hints of official cooperation between Taipei and Washington, even for humanitarian reasons.
To make their case, commentators pointed out that in South Korea, the US has about 30 military camps and bases, and that there’s the US naval base on Guam, not so much further away from Japan than Taiwan. Even Hawaii would have made more sense, let alone the Philippines, a country designated by the US as a “major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally”.
And there are still Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand, with the latter two being important refueling and transit points for the US Navy. But, instead, Taiwan was chosen, possibly to pull Beijing’s leg, or to “build a bridge” to the Taiwanese government, so said the commentators.
“The US makes Taiwan its First Island Chain-backup center,” one Taiwanese reporter sensationalized, referring to a maritime line in the West Pacific which encircles China’s coast and runs along countries friendly to the US, including Taiwan, therefore forming an obstacle to China’s naval ambitions. “By evacuating the US Embassy to Taipei, Washington turns Taiwan into a quasi-ally,” he went on.
Experts approached by Asia Times Online for comment, however, don’t quite share such rather hot-headed enthusiasm.
“I do not subscribe to the notion that this is an effort by the [Barack] Obama administration ‘to build a bridge to Taipei’,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council. The head of the non-profit organization which fosters trade and business relations between the US and Taiwan says the US government has balked at many other opportunities to enhance relations with Taipei.
To Hammond-Chambers, the evacuation of Japan-based US personnel to Taiwan was a practical decision based on geography and flight frequencies, convenience and cost, as well as on comfort for the American families. “Taipei is a wonderful place for non-Taiwanese families to stay, and they will be well taken care of during this difficult period,” he said.
Steve Tsang, professorial fellow in Taiwan Studies at Oxford University, dismisses speculation that diplomatic maneuvering was behind Washington’s decision. To him, the hypotheses presented on Taiwanese TV talk shows made no sense at all.
“I would ask the question the other way, namely, why should they not be evacuated to Taiwan? To avoid Taiwan would only have been because of a need or wish to avoid Beijing expressing anger as if Washington’s decision should imply enhanced recognition of Taipei,” Tsang said.
Tsang added another significant reason for Taiwan being a plausible choice. “Taiwan is a friendly place where the US personnel will find support and plenty of good facilities. Since other countries may well be using Korea for this purpose rather than Taiwan, it is probably logistically easier to send them to Taiwan.”
Nonetheless, although in Tsang’s eyes the evacuation did not imply any basic change in Washington’s relationship with Taipei and Beijing, it could probably be seen as an indicator that “Washington is now less worried about a negative People’s Republic of China reaction”.
The source of news that the evacuees were accompanied by active-duty US-military personnel, and the nature of the soldiers’ function, isn’t clear. No American strolling down Taipei’s streets and alleys in US military uniform has been caught by the island’s TV cameras. Rumors that US Marines delivered confidential documents to a Taiwanese intelligence facility may have come from a handful of Taiwanese journalists – they were later picked up by mainland Chinese netizens.
As the evacuees weren’t flown on military aircraft but onboard aircraft chartered with China Airlines, which is the Taiwanese flag carrier, it’s obvious that both Washington and Taipei kept the evacuation as low-key as possible. No word has been heard from Beijing on the matter.
Huang Hua-hsi, a Taiwanese legislative assistant, shed lights on the impression the evacuation has made on the Taiwanese public. According to him, unlike some political commentators, ordinary Taiwanese didn’t sense a hidden political agenda. The television footage of Americans fleeing Japan for Taiwan affected the public quite in another manner.
“The evacuation fueled the notion that this time, the crisis was really serious,” Huang said. He ventured thought on the psychological impact on the Taiwanese public if the US had skipped Taiwan and brought the evacuees straight to the Philippines.
“That would have looked as if the US doesn’t trust the Taiwanese government at all. Only then, the Taiwanese public would have begun with political speculation.”
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. Wang Jhy-perng is an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies.