Isolated Taiwan to get wider global reach with US visa waivers

The United States announced that it will include Taiwan in its Visa Waiver Program starting Nov. 1.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters
Christopher Marut, director of the American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto US embassy in Taipei), gestures while answering a question during a news conference in Taipei, Oct. 3. The US Department of Homeland Security included Taiwan as one of the countries to be exempted from travel visas to enter the US.

The United States has offered Taiwan a hard-to-get waiver on travel visas, giving wider global reach to a diplomatically isolated island and advancing Washington’s growing long-term partnerships in Asia.

US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced yesterday in Washington that Taiwan had become the 37th place – the fifth in Asia – to be exempted from travel visas to enter the US. Beginning Nov. 1, Taiwanese can stay up to 90 days without spending any time or money on obtaining the documents.

The move helps Taiwan expand its influence by making US travel more accessible to tourists, businesspeople, and academic conference participants. The US, in turn, can advance part of its pivot-to-Asia strategy by forming closer economic, trade, and commercial ties to Taiwan.

“Visa waivers offer the kind of convenience and freedom that make the average people in Taiwan get a better sense of what international space really means to them,” says Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence.

The visa waiver decision comes in spite of efforts by China, which has considered Taiwan part of its territory since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and does not have a US visa waiver. China has used its diplomatic clout, backed by its huge economy, to stop Taiwan from joining international agencies or forming formal ties with its 170-plus foreign allies, including some of the world’s most powerful, like Russia.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has pledged stronger ties for Taiwan to major world nations, despite a lack of formal diplomatic recognition. Mr. Ma pushed for the visa waiver, a core part of his agenda, for three years.

"[Taiwan has] committed to enhance law enforcement and security-related data sharing, timely reporting of lost and stolen passports, and maintaining high counterterrorism law enforcement, immigration control, aviation and document security standard," said Ms. Napolitano at a Global Travel and Tourism Conference. 

The US dropped Taiwan as an ally in 1979 following the establishment of diplomatic ties with rising power China. But the two have strong informal ties, with trade on the rise and a growing number of high-level US visits.

Christopher Marut, director of the de facto US embassy in Taipei, told a news conference today that the visa waivers “will mean increased business and travel, which will benefit both of us.” The US is the top destination for Taiwanese travelers, previously granting about 400,000 visa trips each year, which costs about 600 million New Taiwan dollars ($20.47 million) in visa fees. Some estimates put their spending at more than $1.1 billion a year. 

More visits from Taiwan will generate income for thirsty US businesses, Mr. Wu says.

“With the economy still sagging and the presidential election coming up in about a month, the Obama administration needs to somehow rejuvenate the US economy,” he says.

The US government also has zoomed in on Taiwan’s part of the world since it announced last year a “pivot to Asia.” Part of the pivot calls for stronger trade and economic ties in Asia throughout the next 10 years.

A total of 129 countries allow Taiwan visa-free status. Only a fraction of that figure extends waivers to China.

China has not yet reacted to the visa waivers for Taiwan, Mr. Marut says. The US government diffused Beijing's response by not sending Assistant Secretary of Defense Mark Lippert to the Taiwan-US Defense Industry Conference in Pennsylvania this past weekend. China squirms at any sign of US-Taiwan military cooperation.

“This good news is a high-level recognition of the quality of our country’s citizens and of their spirit of following laws,” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “It’s also another specific affirmation of the progress in closer Taiwan-US relations.”

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