The Liberty Times of Taiwan reported Sunday that Washington has informed senior officials of Taiwan's "Ministry of National Defense" that the US will in September post Marines at the American Institute in Taiwan's (AIT) new complex in Taipei. This has triggered collective follow-up reports by Taiwan media.
The speculation that US Marines might be sent to the new AIT site for security work emerged a few months ago. Only US embassies and consulates are guarded by Marines. Posting US Marines to the AIT would mean a public US declaration that the AIT is equivalent to a US embassy or consulate instead of a non-governmental institution. But Washington has not confirmed the report. AIT responded that security arrangements at its new office compound will be the same as at the current site.
The information about possible new security arrangements of the AIT was mostly reported by Taiwan media. They usually quote sources anonymously. Most of these reports bedimmed one detail: If the Marines are to be stationed at the AIT, will they wear Marine uniforms or casual clothes? Will they publicly manifest their identities, change to another identity or simply blur the issue?
Taiwan's pro-independence activists strongly hope that US Marines will fully showcase their identity so as to proclaim that the AIT is no different from other US embassies and consulates as well as to prove that the island is an "independent sovereign country." The separatist forces in Taiwan have suffered from multiple strikes from the Chinese mainland recently. They are hoping to lift the morale of their camp through hyping topics related to the AIT.
Whether to send Marines to the AIT, under what name the US should send them and what should they wear: The tactical initiative is in Washington's hands. But the strategic initiative is not necessarily in its hands.
If the US stirs up trouble over the case and makes extreme arrangements, it knows how Beijing will respond. Beijing has an increasing number of countermeasures which Washington will have to confront. It could then turn into an escalation of Sino-US friction and the White House cannot be certain about effective control.
If the US Marines publicly station at the AIT in their uniforms, that would be treated by Beijing as a severe subversion of the one-China policy or even an invasion of the US military of Chinese soil. The AIT would also be regarded as a primary stronghold for the US invasion of China. Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen's administration would be defined as a traitorous group. That being said, from a strategic perspective, the AIT would become the most insecure place in Taiwan and a blasting fuse for clashes.
The AIT has never been a real non-governmental institution. Many US people who stationed there are diplomats, intelligence staff, military officers and experts. The new AIT complex is larger and will play a more important role in a tough China strategy by the US. But there is still a difference between offending openly and not doing so.
The status of Taiwan and posture of China-US relations are not shaped by a few petty tricks.