Interview: Joe Borich on Taiwan trade, “one China” policy, and China Council
By Wen Liu Mar. 3, 2017
“The longest-serving executive director/president” is not the only record Joe Borich held at the Washington State China Relations Council. He was also the only one who was both a China hand and Taiwan hand, as he had served as an American diplomat on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. So what did Joe think when then President-elect Trump talked on the phone with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and questioned why the U.S. had to be bound by the “one China” policy? What about Taiwan as a trading partner of the U.S. as well as Washington state? What did “one China” mean for the China Council? Also, last October, Joe traveled to Taiwan as part of the 2016 Cleantech Business Mission. What did the mission do? I finally pinned Joe down after weeks of trying. Here is Joe answering these questions and also sharing his thoughts on the Council since he had left.
WCWD: Last October, you attended the 2016 Taiwan International Green Industry Show as part of the Cleantech Business Mission to Taiwan organized by the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle. Could you tell us what the mission was about?
Joe Borich: The mission was organized to have a look at Taiwan’s green tech space. On balance, I think we had a very good mission, learned a lot. There was a trade show, there were exhibits. We stopped in Taipei, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. We visited their high tech park, the Hsinchu Science Park. We talked to companies and organizations in the clean tech field, through them we were hearing what their government priorities are under Tsai Ing-wen. The purpose was to get a better feel how Taiwan was doing in that field and how our businesses in Washington might connect with that.
WCWD: According to U.S. Census, Taiwan was the ninth largest trading partner of the United States in 2015 and the seventh largest export market for Washington state. Could you share with us your understanding of Taiwan trade?
Joe Borich: The numbers somewhat speak for themselves. Here is a place with 23 million people and in the top 10 in trade with the U.S. It’s very much an economy that is trade-dependent. No question about that. Without that trade, there will be serious trouble. Over the past several years, mainland China has become Taiwan’s top trading partner, the number one destination for Taiwan exports, and the leading source of foreign direct investment for Taiwan as well. So much so that Taiwan authorities are getting a little bit nervous about it, feel they are in a position where that could be used as leverage by Beijing to speed up the process of unification. I don’t think there has been any sort of that so far, but because that is a possibility, Tsai Ing-wen wants to spread the trade and investment out. So what used to be “go west,” to mainland China, slogan is now “go south,” towards Southeast Asia and Australia, but also explicitly to Korea, Japan and the United States. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking trade and investment away from China, it just means argument that they need to spread out the economic network further.
WCWD: Did you deal with any Taiwan companies while at the Council?
Joe Borich: No. We had a rule for a long time, an implicit rule, that the Council would focus on mainland China and Hong Kong, avoid the possible political entanglement, creating a Greater China that would include Taiwan. I am not sure how much that unwritten rule really needs to be observed anymore. There is so much cross-Strait business, it almost seems short-sighted now to say that we can’t deal with Taiwan because we are dealing with mainland China.
WCWD: As a former diplomat who represented the U.S. on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and with family ties to Taiwan, what was your reaction when then President-elect Trump talked to Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen on the phone and questioned the “one China” policy?
Joe Borich: I said, uh oh, it isn’t going to work very well. I didn’t think it was a good idea. I appreciate his logic, but I don’t think it worked well in this case. It was kind of “flies in the face” of the tradition if you will that helped support the relationship between the United States and China, and indeed between China and all other nations, too, which is neither Taiwan nor China is willing to, as yet, officially commit to a “two China” policy, so both are committed to the “one China” policy. If you recognize one side, that means you can’t recognize the other side. Over the years, our response to that has been to maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan. This means that with a few rare exceptions, carefully stated circumstances, U.S. government leaders do not meet with Taiwan government leaders, including phone calls. So this was a breach of tradition. To Beijing’s credit, they didn’t over-react. They didn’t threat to downgrade the relations. I am glad that they didn’t because as we know since then Trump has somewhat moderated his view towards China and Taiwan.
WCWD: Yes. President Trump in his recent phone call with Xi Jinping said that the U.S. would honor the “one-China” policy. But, theoretically, is it really that unreasonable for the U.S. to review that policy after 45 years, since today’s Taiwan is a different Taiwan, a democracy with a different party in power?
Joe Borich: It wouldn't make a big splash of it. It would only serve to alarm Beijing. If they want to take a look and see what’s been going on, they should, for the last 45 years or so. This is a new administration, with no government experience. They ought to be reviewing all of our policies, all of our relations. If you are going to do this, announce it, and keep a running commentary going, that serves no useful purpose. That just angers Beijing, risks our relationship with Beijing. If you want a quiet policy review, they should review a number of policies, domestic and foreign. They need to review our policies with China, too, with India, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Russia. They can come to their own determination. But if they want to have a relationship with Beijing, they have to accept the fact that they cannot have relations with Taiwan. It just won’t work.
WCWD: As someone who led the Council for 16 years, what would be your advice to the new leadership in terms of continuing the mission of the Council, refocused in 2002 after China’s WTO accession, with the new uncertainties and opportunities in U.S.-China relations today?
Joe Borich: I think the most important thing would be to maintain communications and a robust program of activities with China. I think in this case, it’s also important for the Council to become very familiar with the new administration, its policies, its principal actors. This is a whole new game. While things seem to be on at least a relatively even keel between Beijing and Washington right now, as we know we got off a rocky start, we may not be out of the woods yet. I think the Council has to stay on top of that and figure out how it can operate in an uncertain and often challenging atmosphere of U.S.-China relations. The Council has to continue to impress upon people of Washington state and its businesses just how important this relationship with China is for our economy.
WCWD: As you know, I recently wrote about how you first four executive directors of the Council, “gang of four” I call, good “gang of four,” experienced the turbulent years of U.S.-China relations, how Kristi led the Council in “peace and prosperity,” and how Mercy Kuo now in a new situation. Do you agree?
Joe Borich: I agree, but I would say this for Kristi. She may have been in relatively placid period of U.S.-China relations, she was in a period of great volatility in terms of the Council itself. She really pulled things together, helped re-fund the Council, a wider ability to operate, and I think did a very commendable, very good job. So now the Council is in much better shape.