(From left to right) AIT Director Brent Christensen, Taiwan Minister Wu, President Surangel Whipps Jr., First Lady Valerie Whipps and US Ambassador John Hennessey-Niland. (Photo credit: MOFA)

In the first official visit of a US Ambassador to the Republic of China-Taiwan since 1979, US Ambassador John Hennessey-Niland to Palau joined in this week’s presidential delegation to Taiwan for the opening of the travel bubble, and riled up Beijing in the process.

Ambassador Niland said that he and his wife were accompanying President Surangel Whipps Jr. at the President’s invitation, although many in Taiwan questioned what the visit could mean for US-Taiwan relations.

In a joint press conference with Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, Ambassador Niland, and American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) Director Brent Christensen held on March 30, Minister Wu expressed his hope that the US, Taiwan, and Palau will continue to strengthen their relationship.

“Our relationship with the US and Palau has always been very close,” said Minister Wu. “Ambassador John Hennessey-Niland’s visit to Taiwan shows that this relationship will only deepen.”

The US Ambassador’s comments at the press conference largely focused on the example which the new travel bubble between Palau and Taiwan sets for the rest of the world, saying that “their cooperation is a model for how countries can work together to combat the pandemic”.

He went on to say that the launch of the sterile corridor will strengthen “people-to-people ties between two friends of the US”, and said that he looks forward to discussing other opportunities for cooperation between the US, Palau, and Taiwan.

“I know people often describe the US-Taiwan partnership as ‘Real Friends, Real Progress’ and I think that description could aptly be applied to the cooperation between the United States, Taiwan, and Palau as well,” he said, referencing AIT’s 2020 theme.

While the remarks would generally sound conventional, in this case they carried extra weight, as the US and Taiwan have not had formal diplomatic relations since the US switched diplomatic ties to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, and officially recognized Taiwan as a part of China.

More than one spokesperson for the PRC have voiced out that the Ambassador’s presence in Taiwan can be seen as a national affront to China, with Spokesperson Zhao Lijian first warning the US to cease official exchanges with Taiwan, and PRC Taiwan Affairs Spokesperson Zhu Fenglian stating that the US is sending wrong signals to “Taiwan independence forces”.

This is not the first official exchange this past week between the US and Taiwan to have upset China, with the signing of an MOU between US and Taiwanese officials having established a Coast Guard Working Group, a cooperation between maritime law enforcement of both US and Taiwan.

Taiwan news outlets have said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China has sent numerous warplanes into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone in the past two weeks, a move which Spokesperson Zhu Fenglian has defended as “safeguarding national sovereignty”.

At a press conference in Taiwan, President Whipps said that as a small nation Palau would like to be friends with everybody, but added that “we also believe that nobody should tell us we cannot be somebody else’s friend”, in reference to China’s travel bans to Palau which were imposed in response to Palau’s diplomatic ties to Taiwan.

“I think a true friend is with you no matter what, and I think Taiwan, the Republic of China, has always demonstrated the value of our partnership and our friendship,” said President Whipps.

President Whipps went on to describe the various ways in which Taiwan has helped Palau throughout the years, including in economic development, agriculture, aquaculture, healthcare, and education, and highlighted shared cultural ties and values between the two countries, such as the “commitment. . . in protecting and securing and fighting for freedom and democracy in our region”. 

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