The American Institute in Taiwan is Washington’s de facto embassy on the self-ruled island, created four decades ago in 1979 as a result of then-president Jimmy Carter’s decision to shift the US diplomatic mission from Taipei to Beijing.
The AIT has just announced its event calendar to celebrate its 40th anniversary, which was marked earlier this month, as well as its activities to acknowledge the 40 years of the Taiwan Relations Act, a quasi-security treaty that ensures the island is treated as the functional equivalent of an independent country by the US.
But John J Tkacik Jr, a retired US Foreign Service officer who served in Taipei and Beijing and who is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, has fired a shot across the AIT’s bow.
Tkacik questioned in his column in the Taipei Times how an unofficial, non-governmental body like the AIT could assume the complex and interconnected burdens of US relations with Taiwan.
The AIT was put together on an ad hoc basis by Richard Holbrooke, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs under the Carter administration, after Washington inked a normalization agreement with Beijing on December 15, 1978.
Tkacik wrote that the AIT was hastily staffed with retired Foreign Service officers to fill the void left by Washington shifting its embassy to the mainland, and, because of the vague descriptions of minimal congressional supervision in its documents, there was a lack of oversight by the US State Department of the AIT’s operations.
Tkacik suggested that all AIT officers should be Senate-confirmed to fill active duty posts for the military and navy, as well as the Foreign Service “to resemble the constitutionally prescribed ‘advice and consent’ that attends any president’s nomination of persons entrusted as ‘Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls.’”
The AIT has a small headquarters office in Arlington county, Virginia, with its largest office located in Taipei. The organization also has a small branch office in Taiwan’s southern port city of Kaohsiung.
Tkacik noted that in 2012, the State Department offered 27 recommendations on the operations of the AIT’s Washington office, suggesting that the Washington office serves no substantive purpose aside from attending quarterly board meetings. As well, the nomination and appointment of the AIT’s trustees and officers was done largely through “back-channel whispers, winks and nods.”
He said the AIT must be treated as any other wholly owned “unofficial” government enterprise that spends only taxpayers’ money and performs only the duties entrusted to it, so its governing board and officers should be confirmed by the US Senate.
The AIT is a non-profit corporation and the Department of State, through a semi-official contract, provides guidance and some funding for its operations. The AIT is staffed by employees of the Department of State and other governmental agencies as well as by locally hired clerks.
Prior to a 2002 amendment to the Foreign Service Act, US government employees were required to resign from government service for their period of assignment to the AIT.
For the purposes of remuneration and benefits, directors of the AIT hold the same rank as ambassador and, in Taiwan, are accorded diplomatic privileges in their capacity as directors.