Q&A: American Institute in Taiwan Chairman talks U.S.-Taiwan relations

May 7, 2018, 12:25 a.m.

James F. Moriarty currently serves as the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. Prior to becoming chairman, Moriarty was special assistant to the President of the United States and senior director for Asia at the National Security Council from 2002-2004. Moriarty served previously as director for China Affairs at the National Security Council from 2001-2002. He also led the political sections at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing (1998-2001) and the American Institute in Taiwan (1995-1998). In addition, Moriarty was U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh from 2008-2011 and Nepal from 2004-2007.

Moriarty gave a seminar about U.S.-Taiwan relations on Thursday, May 3 at Encina Hall.  The Daily sat down with Moriarty to discuss U.S.-Taiwan relations, China’s political agenda and his personal experiences working in foreign service.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why is Taiwan important to the United States? What are its geopolitical implications?

James Moriarty (JM): We have long-standing commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act. So that codifies a relationship. That act was passed in 1979, before Taiwan’s democratization, before Taiwan became such a crucial link in global value chains. Those facts have pushed us quite a bit closer together, to a degree that I don’t think anybody expected back in 1979. The sharing of values is a big deal. It is something that really reinforces the commitments against a coerced reunification or against a coerced resolution of the questions between mainland China and Taiwan.

You also hit on a big issue now, which is the change in the U.S.-China relationship. Back in 1979, China was viewed primarily as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, and we were willing to overlook a lot of what had happened in the not-too-distant past in China. Things have changed dramatically, particularly over the past five years, as there’s been a dawning realization that China views itself as a competitor to the United States. That basically puts the U.S. in a position where it has to respond, where the U.S. interest in Asia demands that we come up with a policy that reflects the fact that China is an active competitor to the U.S.. And if you look at it that way, then Taiwan also has a strategic importance, which wasn’t nearly as prominent up until the last five years.

TSD: What values do the United States and Taiwan share?

JM: People your age – anyone under 30 – have this democratic chip in them that I’ve also had for my 64 years. They expect to elect their leaders, they expect to throw them out when they’re unhappy with them, they expect to say pretty much anything they want, go anywhere they want, criticize anybody they want. They’re used hearing all sorts of different views. For an American, it’s really neat to see that those kinds of values are almost exactly the same [in Taiwan].

TSD: What are the key points of the Taiwan Travel Act that President Trump recently signed in March? What are its implications?

JM: They key point is that it’s non-binding. It doesn’t require any sort of specific action. It advises Congress to coordinate more high-level visits between the U.S. and Taiwan, but leaves it completely up to the Administration as to how they’d do that. An implication is that China has picked this as an issue to which they are going to react strongly. In that sense, it becomes part of the dialogue between China and the U.S.

TSD: Former President Ma Ying-Jeou visited Stanford a couple weeks ago, and during his speech he criticized the current Democratic Progressive Party policies as being detrimental to Taiwanese democracy. How do you feel about the trend of democracy in Taiwan?

JM: Well, I actually think it’s very healthy — perhaps because we’re so polarized in the U.S., I don’t view Taiwan as being split on crucial issues to the degree that some people think it is. Also, the institutions seem to work well. You have corporations who don’t always give the government what it wants, and you also have the screamingly free press.

TSD: Speaking of China, given Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s further consolidation of power earlier this year, do you foresee any changes to cross-strait relations?

JM: Not much initially, in the sense that Xi Jinping was obviously keeping a close rein on Taiwanese policy. I think the biggest variable is Chinese domestic politics. I don’t think Tsai Ing-wen is going to do anything to provoke Xi Jinping, but there could be something internally that might force him to look at Taiwan differently. I think even though the Chinese are beginning to [compete] more and more with the U.S., I don’t think Xi Jinping wants this to be a dominant issue on his agenda. He doesn’t want confrontation with the U.S. over Taiwan, and he doesn’t have complete confidence that a military solution can be implemented at this point in time. China is going to continue what they’re doing already, which is trying to squeeze Taiwan internationally.

TSD: Do you think the recent talks between North and South Korea could serve as inspiration for closer communication between Taiwan and the mainland?

JM: No. In the case of North and South Korea, I think the North is really getting squeezed by sanctions, and Kim Jong-un is increasingly confident in his nuclear capabilities. I think he’s looking for a way out of the economic squeeze and I am confident that his goal is not going to be anything like a unified Korea under one democratic system. None of those conditions apply across the Taiwan strait right now. Taiwan is not internationally isolated on economic terms, and China – because of the Hong Kong experiment – cannot argue that [the constitutional principle of] “one country, two systems” really means a functioning democracy in Taiwan. It would be a democracy with … special Chinese characteristics.

TSD: Given Taiwan’s lack of statehood, how has the U.S. helped Taiwan established a larger presence in international organizations?

JM: International organizations where statehood is a requirement is a tough nut to crack for us. Unfortunately, in a lot of those organizations, China’s … main goal is to belittle Taiwan to make sure that it doesn’t play a major role. And they’ve gotten many countries to agree with their “One China” principle, which gives them the argument that if countries have recognized Taiwan to be a part of China, how can those countries see Taiwan as a participant in international organizations? They have an argument based on policy, and they use it all the time. We’re getting better at organizing like-minded countries [to push back], but I don’t really foresee us overcoming the Chinese opposition.

In other areas,  there’s more room. One of the things we’re doing with Taiwan… is something called the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). The U.S. and Taiwan sit down together and look at areas where Taiwan should be playing a prominent role, and try to bring experts in those areas to Taiwan to talk to their Taiwanese counterparts to build relationships. So we can work in those areas more effectively than we can in big international organizations.

TSD: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your experience as a diplomat and in foreign service?

JM: Transparency can be very useful in a lot of areas and verification is crucial in a lot of areas. Transparency so that people understand what’s been agreed to, and verification because people will usually put their own spin on what was agreed to. If you come to an agreement that you can’t verify, then it’s not a very good agreement. In terms of working with other countries short of that, you should be as transparent as possible. You shouldn’t have any problems saying, “this is what U.S. goals and interests are.” Countries will understand that argument. That’s why it really is most effective to be upfront.

TSD: How has your work in the private sector informed or influenced your work in foreign service, and vice versa?

JM: My work in foreign service has informed how I look at problems and identify key points where I can make an influence. My work in the private sector has shown me the need to move quickly and effectively to achieve the optimal solution. In diplomacy, a lot of issues are very slow-moving. You do get breakthroughs, but they’re the result of a lot of hard work. The private sector doesn’t have as much patience. You have a timeline to try and produce results, and if you’re not getting the right result, then you have to move on to something else or try a different tack. It’s difficult to find that perfect blend.

TSD: Do you have any advice for students who want to get involved in foreign service?

JM: It can be fascinating. And even if you’re not going to go into foreign service itself, figuring out how the world works is vital for any American.


This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Alex Tsai ’21 is a senior staff writer for The Daily. Previous roles at The Daily include news desk editor and mobile app developer. Alex is majoring in Computer Science and is a member of the varsity lacrosse team.

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