TAIPEI—After nine years of construction, more than 400 American diplomats and staff have moved into new offices here, a $250 million compound built into a lush hill with security provided by marines. Employees will offer American citizens in Taiwan consular services and help Taiwanese obtain visas to visit the United States, just as they would anywhere else in the world.
Yet this is not an embassy, or a consulate—at least officially. Instead it is the American Institute in Taiwan, a name that suggests a research center rather than a diplomatic mission, the result of a geopolitical compromise that, while far from the biggest of Taiwan’s problems, illustrates the ludicrous situation the island finds itself in. It is not recognized as a country by its most important ally, the U.S.; it faces an existential threat from territory it claims as its own, China; and its sovereign status is being gradually erased by companies seeking to preserve access to the Chinese market. As tensions worsen between Washington and Beijing—and with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen due to visit the U.S. this week—understanding Taiwan’s bizarre situation becomes ever more important.
Officially, 17 countries recognize Taiwan’s democratic government, which is known as the Republic of China, but the United Nations regards the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing, which has never controlled Taiwan, as speaking for the island. This leads to one of the many absurdities that affect Taiwan: Its 23 million citizens can travel the world on Taiwanese passports—emblazoned with Republic of China (Taiwan)—which are among the most widely accepted documents on the planet, but they cannot enter UN buildings with them. (This is despite the fact that in 1942, the Republic of China was among the first countries to sign the United Nations Declaration.) Washington does not recognize the Republic of China, yet Taiwan is the U.S.’s 11th-largest trading partner, the world’s 22nd-largest economy, and a crucial link in Silicon Valley’s supply chain.