As China’s Pressure on Taiwan Rises, Departing U.S. Envoy Urges Steady Hand

Near the end of three years as the United States’ chief representative in Taiwan, Sandra Oudkirk has some parting advice: Avoid panic about China’s combative language and moves, but don’t grow numb to the risks.

Ms. Oudkirk has been Washington’s de facto ambassador to Taiwan over a time when the island democracy has become a crucible of tensions between Washington and Beijing. China claims that Taiwan is its territory and must accept unification, by armed force if leaders in Beijing decide that is necessary.

At times, debate among Taiwanese and American politicians, officials and experts has taken on some tension as well, over which mix of tactics — what military purchases, what reassuring or unyielding words to Beijing, what steps with fellow democracies — could best reduce the risks of war.

Ms. Oudkirk, who leaves her post in Taipei early next month, suggested that Taiwan and its partners needed to find a steady path, avoiding both hysteria and complacency.

“These are questions that we get all the time about how dangerous Taiwan is — you know, that Taiwan is the most dangerous place in the world,” she said, referring to talk of imminent crisis or war. “Sometimes the sound bites really don’t capture the full reality.”

But she added of China: “When a government, a country, a leader tells you what they’re thinking and tells you what they’re planning, you should listen to what they’re saying.”

After decades of tirades from Beijing, many Taiwanese people pay little attention. Chinese military drills and airspace intrusions are escalating, yet still only rarely cause public alarm. A majority of Taiwanese also say they believe that the United States would step in if China truly threatened to invade.

But that belief is not universal among Taiwanese politicians and voters, some of whom are skeptical about American dedication and intent.

The United States has pledged in a law to help Taiwan defend itself, and has the option of sending U.S. forces if China ever attempted an armed takeover. Some U.S. commanders and experts have said an invasion is a looming possibility: A few years ago some cited 2027 as a potential date for Chinese military action. But Biden administration officials have said that they see no firm deadline from China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

Even so, in the years up to and during Ms. Oudkirk’s time as top U.S. representative in Taiwan, China’s pressure campaign against the island about 100 miles off its shore has intensified.

She was first assigned to Taiwan as a consular officer back in 1992, when the island was emerging from decades of martial law, and China was far less wealthy and well armed. She later had posts in Dublin, Istanbul and Beijing.

Ms. Oudkirk became de facto ambassador in Taiwan in the middle of 2021. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came a few months later, deepening Taiwanese worries of a similar gamble by China of an armed takeover. In August 2022, the Chinese military held its most extensive exercises ever around Taiwan, in what Beijing said was retaliation after Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Taipei.

Taiwan’s presidential election this year delivered victory to Lai Ching-te, who is deeply disliked by Beijing, prompting another round of Chinese military exercises near the island and fiery denunciations from Beijing after his inauguration in May. Mr. Lai said then that he wanted to preserve Taiwan’s status quo — self ruled, yet short of formally declaring independence. Chinese officials have reacted with public, and heated, disbelief.

“His May 20 speech was from start to end a barefaced declaration for Taiwan independence,” Lt. Gen. He Lei, a former Vice President of China’s Academy of Military Sciences, said in a recent interview while visiting Singapore for a meeting. “Going further and deeper down the path of Taiwan independence now will only bring greater dangers across the Taiwan Strait.”

To counter China’s warnings and growing strength, Taiwan and Washington have stepped up their cooperation, and the American representative office on a hillside in northeast Taipei is a concrete and steel symbol of those ties.

Its official name is the American Institute in Taiwan, which can make it sound more like a language school than a diplomatic mission. The vague name is a concession to the fact that Washington ended formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan when U.S. recognition shifted to Beijing in 1979.

The American Institute office was for years in a crowded office in downtown Taipei, maintaining a diminished official presence. The operation took pains to keep a low profile, and for decades didn’t regularly fly the American flag.

Things are different now. The new institute complex, built in 2019, is a sprawling affair and has up to 585 staff members, up from 488 in 2019, according to its press office. The U.S. flag is now a steady presence above the building.

“These are examples of how U.S.-Taiwan relations have progressed,” Brent Christensen, the director of the American Institute in Taiwan before Ms. Oudkirk, said in an interview. He now teaches at Brigham Young University.

“Much of it is guided by precedent,” Mr. Christensen said. “But the Trump administration didn’t care very much about precedent, so it was a helpful time to move beyond some of these restrictions that we had imposed on ourselves.”

Ms. Oudkirk said that during her three years as director, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a particular turning point for Taiwan, and for strengthening ties with the United States.

“Ukraine’s ability to withstand the Russian invasion obviously played out in the news here in a big way, particularly in 2022,” she said. “It really prompted that big public attention and debate on ‘What does this mean for Taiwan?’”

Taiwan’s previous president, Tsai Ing-wen, in 2022 extended the length of military conscription for men to one year, up from four months. Taiwan has also been ordering more mobile missiles and other nimble weapons that could deter a Chinese attack.

“The level of strategic integration between Taiwan and the U.S. is the highest it’s been since they severed diplomatic ties” in 1979, said Kuo Yu-jen, a political science professor at National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan.

Not all Taiwanese people welcome the tightening embrace. Ms. Oudkirk’s years as representative also coincided with a renewed current of what local people call “yi-mei-lun,” skepticism about America, especially among voters who believe that Taiwan and Washington have needlessly antagonized Beijing.

Part of the distrust of U.S. intentions or capacity to support Taiwan reflected Chinese information operations to magnify doubts, Ms. Oudkirk said, but part of it reflected the normal ebb and flow of disagreement in a democracy.

She gets plenty of questions about whether the United States’ impending election could lead to a shift in American support. She has remained characteristically diplomatic on that front.

“In the United States, unlike on almost any other issue of foreign policy or domestic policy, there is a broad-based, bipartisan consensus on policy toward Taiwan,” she told reporters at a farewell news conference on Friday. “So I do not think an election would necessarily change that.”

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