Visa-Free Treatment from US: Win/Win Taipei/Washington Relations
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 3, 2012
Summary: The US has not expressed open dissatisfaction with Taipei's recent responses to the Diaoyutai issue. But US Department of State and Department of Defense officials were "coincidentally" unable to attend the US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference held in Pennsylvania. The United States is accustomed to using a two-pronged "carrot and stick" strategy. The reality is Taipei remains highly dependent upon Washington for arms sales. This is the key to Washington's future policy toward Taipei. The ROC government must assess its next step carefully.
Full Text below:
In late 2011, the Republic of China became a candidate for the U.S. visa waiver program. Yesterday U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a meeting of the Department of State Global Business Conference on Travel and Tourism. She announced that the ROC was now officially a United States visa-free program nation. ROC citizens would enjoy 90 day visa-free treatment from the United States. The United States has become the the 29th nation to grant Republic of China passport holders visa-free or visa on arrival treatment. Obviously, the policy decision is a win/win that will bring both sides benefits.
For the United States, the short-term and direct economic effects are surely the top priority.
As we all know, the 9/11 Incident occurred in 2001. In response, the United States Department of Homeland Security established a strict, multi-level visa review process. Its purpose was to prevent infiltration by terrorists. But it also led to a sharp decline in the number of people applying for a U.S. tourist visas. The 2008 financial tsunami brought a global downturn in the economy. The United States lost an estimated 900 billion USD in foreign exchange earnings and 500,000 jobs over the past decade. The United States share of the global tourism market also fell from 17% to 11%.
The Republican Party lost power during the last election. This was clearly due to the recession and the loss of public support. The US presidential election is now at a critical juncture. The current unemployment rate is much higher than even four years ago. It is an embarrassment. As a result, any moves to improve the economy have acquired legitimacy.
Recently the U.S. Federal Reserve announced another quantitative easing. In January Obama issued an executive order establishing visa and international tourist processing goals, a task Force on tourism competitiveness, and relaxed and accelerated tourist visa applications to increase tourism profitability. The Department of State and Department of Homeland Security must submit progress reports within 180 days. The most import measure increases the number of countries granted visa-free entry. It is estimated that if the U.S. tourism industry can return to pre-9/11 levels, it will be able to create 1.3 million jobs. The message is clear. Needless to say it became the government's primary consideration when changing its visa-free policy.
Nevertheless political factors cannot be overlooked.
Early this year, the Western Pacific Region became increasingly unstable. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak landed on Dokdo. This led to considerable discord between South Korea and Japan, two major U.S. regional allies. Mainland China and Japan clashed over Diaoyutai. This brought the two nations to the brink of conflict. It affected the U.S. government's regional and even global strategic posture. The Chinese Communist Party did not want any incidents before the 18th Party Congress. For the US, the maintenance of stability is an essential and rational domestic and foreign policy goal. The ROC has long been an ally of the the United States, Taiwan is also located in a highly sensitive geopolitical region. The visa free U.S. concession is not a high price to pay. But its benefits are enormous.
Naturally this action has great significance for Taiwan. Late last year the U.S. put the ROC on its list of candidates for its visa waiver program. This provoked suspicions that President Ma Ying-jeou was using the issue as an election ploy. It has increased the number of places the world over where ROC citizens enjoy visa-free or visa on arrival treatment. It was one of the reasons the Ma administration promoted "flexible diplomacy." Four years ago we enjoyed visa free treatment from 54 countries. The United States is now the 129th country to grant the ROC visa-free treatment. The government's approval rating remains low. This was undoubtedly a diplomatic shot in the arm.
In fact, visa-free treatment has another meaning. The world is increasingly globalized. Visa free treatment enables Taiwan businessmen to travel all over the world. It is also a safeguard. Visa-free treatment does not merely provide convenient access. Visa free travel documents also imply official endorsement.
Currently only 36 countries enjoy visa-free treatment from the US. The only other Asian countries to enjoy such treatment are Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Brunei. Add the Pacific region and only two more countries, Australia and New Zealand qualify. The symbolic significance of US visa-free treatment cannot be overstated. As previously mentioned the United States has sent a rare and positive message. The ROC still relies on US support to participate in international activities. This, naturally, is deeply valued. That said, this entirely positive view of Taipei/Washington relations may be overly optimistic.
Another piece of news emerged at about the same time. The US has not expressed open dissatisfaction with Taipei's recent responses to the Diaoyutai issue. But US Department of State and Department of Defense officials were "coincidentally" unable to attend the US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference held in Pennsylvania. The United States is accustomed to using a two-pronged "carrot and stick" strategy. The reality is Taipei remains highly dependent upon Washington for arms sales. This is the key to Washington's future policy toward Taipei. The ROC government must assess its next step carefully.