American Institute in Taiwan director Brent Christensen. Photo: Handout

De-facto US ambassador to Taiwan Brent Christensen, whose official title is director of the American Institute in Taiwan, told reporters in a recent interview that he was a thorn in Beijing’s side long before assuming his position as Washington’s point man on the self-ruled island.

Christensen arrived in Beijing in 2007 for his assignment as Counselor for Environment, Science, Technology and Health, and before long he noticed that the capital city’s smoggy skies failed to clear up even after the city’s meteorologists forecast a blue, sunny day.

He then purchased an air quality monitor and installed it on the roof of the US embassy complex in northeastern Beijing “to get an accurate sense of how bad China’s air pollution really was”.

“No one had a very clear picture on how serious [the air pollution] was, because the Chinese published data that was clearly not accurate,” Christensen told Taiwanese reporters.

With his own, real-time air quality readings published online, Christensen singlehandedly shed light on  China’s nebulous air quality monitoring and accountability system as party cadres cheated on their declarations of blue sky days. And unsurprisingly, Beijing started to fume and took its complaints directly to Christensen.

The US embassy in Beijing. Photo: Handout

“I do not remember how many times they complained, but I think their complaints just went away when it became obvious that there was such a big demand for this information,” Christensen said.

The US embassy’s realtime air quality index has since become a more reliable gauge, way more so than official readings, of how polluted the air is and if people should wear a mask when going outside.

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection ultimately succumbed to the mounting public pressure and began to make public accurate air quality data itself.

Taiwan ties

Christensen was first posted to Taiwan as a visa officer at the AIT at the turn of the 1990s, his first overseas assignment after joining the US Department of State. Over the course of his diplomatic career, his job has brought him back to Taiwan again and again. He served as AIT’s deputy director from 2012 to 2015.

His expertise on environmental protection also paved the way for a visit by then-US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, the first cabinet-level US official to visit Taiwan.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act and the establishment of the AIT. Christensen said he plans to move his staff to the AIT’s brand-new compound in Taipei’s Neihu District very soon.

American Institute in Taiwan director Brent Christensen with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Handout

When asked to verify reports that US President Donald Trump was skeptical about any US security commitment to Taiwan, Christensen noted that, while there was a commitment [by the US] to come to Taiwan’s defense if China resorted to non-peaceful means to deal with separatist moves, that commitment was “never absolute”, according to Taiwanese papers.

The AIT said in February that it would not endorse a referendum on Taiwan independence proposed by some secessionist groups.

“The US has a deep and abiding interest in cross-strait peace and stability and the US has long been opposed to unilateral actions aimed at altering the status quo… It has been our long-standing policy that we do not support a referendum on Taiwan independence,” read an AIT statement.

Before heading the AIT, Christensen was Director of the State Department’s Office of Taiwan coordination, where he had a primary role in formulating US policy toward Taiwan. His other overseas postings also include Hong Kong.

Before his appointment was announced in May 2018, reports suggested Washington considered whether it was best to appoint a career diplomat or politician to head the AIT and veteran Arizona politician Matt Salmon was also tipped for the role. However it was said that the State Department was keen for someone who would creatively strengthen the US-Taiwan relationship.

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