On August 21, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb became the latest in a line of American politicians to visit Taiwan this summer, and the first US governor to tour the island since the COVID-19 pandemic when he made a previously-unannounced landing in Taipei. Holcomb described his two-day excursion as an “economic development trip” that would, “[build] new relationships, [reinforce] long time ones and [strengthen] key sector partnerships” for Indiana. However, Holcomb’s presence has come at a time of exceptionally high tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan’s status first started by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in early August, and the republican governor’s visit prompted Chinese officials to publish a “stern demarche” in protest.
Governor Holcomb’s stated mission for his time in Taiwan (and a following two-day trip to South Korea) was to “attract investment from semiconductor and electric vehicle battery companies” for Indiana. He was accompanied by a delegation of Indiana business and education leaders. The delegation's activities included discussing ties with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Minister of Economic Affairs Mei-hua Wang, and American Institute Director Sarah Oudkirk; signing a memorandum of understanding between Indiana and Taiwan; and meeting with corporations including TSMC and MediaTek. In June, MediaTek announced it would create a new chip design center in Indiana at Purdue University, indicating the visit is part of a larger technological partnership between the state and island. Speaking about the trip, Holcomb said that Indiana is on a path to becoming “a leader” in the space of semiconductor research and production.
Indiana’s relationship with Taiwan dates back to 1978 when state capitol Indianapolis formed a sister-city relationship with Taipei. While not one of Taiwan’s largest trade partners, data shows an emerging relationship between the two. Indiana is the 16th largest destination for greenfield investment from Taiwan and, exports to Taiwan support 1,500 jobs in the state. Additionally, Indiana houses the 8th largest population of Taiwanese foreign students.
Chinese officials criticized the trip by Indiana’s governor, which came on the heels of visits by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Ed Markey, and additional congresspeople this August. The Spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to the trip by saying China “firmly opposes official US exchanges with the Taiwan region” and that the Ministry “made serious démarches to the US side on Indiana Governor Holcomb’s visit.” The Global Times blamed the trip for causing “regional tensions” regarding the Taiwan question, which have been inflamed in the weeks since Pelosi landed in Taipei. This period, referred to as the ‘Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis’ by some American think tanks, has sparked a response from China in the form of ballistic missile launches over Taiwan and cyber-attacks.
The governor’s trip raises broader questions about the future of US-Taiwan relations. Similar visits made for cultural and economic reasons have not traditionally been opposed by China, and the cost of Holcomb’s travels is notably being paid through private donations to the Indiana Economic Development Foundation—not US government funds. However, the controversy over Holcomb’s visit may be an indication Taiwan’s status, and the ability of US politicians to engage with the island, is in increasingly perilous waters.
Meghan Murphy is a Young Professional and Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a rising senior at Brown University studying International Relations with a focus in Indo-Pacific Affairs.