This week, Hsiao Bi-khim (萧美琴) was sworn as Taiwan’s new envoy to the United States. This change of guard at Taiwan’s representative office in Washington comes at a time of souring U.S.-China relations and deepening engagement between Taiwan and U.S. officials. As U.S.-China tensions across the high seas and cyberspace elsewhere grow, the U.S. has shown unprecedented support for Taiwan. Numerous Senators and House members sent messages congratulating Tsai Ing-wen’s re-inauguration in May, and high-ranking members including Speaker Pelosi sent farewell letters to Representative Stanley Kao (高碩泰), whom Hsiao has now succeeded.
Hsiao brings to Washington a unique background that lends particular weight to her capacity to deepen U.S.-Taiwan relations. Her bicultural and bilingual identity is unprecedented for a representative to the U.S. Born to a Taiwanese father and American mother, she lived in Taiwan through junior high school then came to the U.S. for senior high. She completed her bachelor’s from Oberlin and master’s from Columbia.
Hsiao has developed a reputation as a leading voice in Taiwanese diplomacy, especially within the ranks of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). She has been involved in U.S.-Taiwan relations since the 1990s and has quickly risen amongst the ranks. Her first job was as the head of the DPP’s mission to the U.S., which she held until she returned to Taiwan to serve as director of the DPP’s International Affairs Department. She served as President Chen Shui-bian’s interpreter and adviser and, in 2008, became special assistant to the new DPP chair, Tsai Ing-wen. From 2012 to 2020, she served in the Legislative Yuan, where she focused on foreign affairs and defense.
The new representative has developed a close relationship with the top leadership in Taiwan. She accompanied presidential candidate Tsai on her 2011 and 2015 Washington visits. Primed to become the new U.S. representative, she accompanied vice president-elect Lai Ching-te on his historic visit to Washington in January this year. As a DPP loyalist, Hsiao comes to Washington with a partisan background that her predecessor, a career diplomat, did not have. Her close personal ties with Tsai Ing-wen—she has been described as Tsai’s confidant and “female bestie [闺蜜]”—may facilitate the deepening of U.S.-Taiwan relations at the highest levels.
With this experience, Hsiao also brings a dynamic way of conducting diplomacy, particularly online. Hsiao is 48 years old, and her relative youth is seen in her social media activity. On Twitter, she has addressed political issues less traditionally viewed as within the purview of diplomatic envoys. Over the past month, Hsiao’s personal Twitter account has engaged with tweets on many aspects of Taiwanese foreign policy, including Taiwan-Japan relations, the Dalai Lama, the State Department spokesperson’s condemnation of Chinese “slave labor,” and the U.S. stance on the South China Sea. She also liked president Trump’s tweet declaring “China has caused great damage to the United States and the rest of the World!” Some have speculated that her age and gender will be used to present a PR-friendly face of Taiwan as a modern, youthful, and democratic island.
The new representative is very critical of mainland China, particularly on human rights and democratic issues. As a young activist, she was an outspoken critic of the Communist Party, for example handing out leaflets after the Tiananmen massacre to support Chinese students. In a speech at the Atlantic Council last year, Hsiao stated, “today we are facing a China that is far more autocratic and aggressive… China is exerting more influence on our societies, infiltrating and influencing our societies in a way that could potentially threaten our democratic identities.”
And Hsiao’s unique background does not stop there. Born in Japan, Hsiao has also worked on Japan-Taiwan relations. In the past, Hsiao helped establish a ferry/airmail connection between Hualien and Okinawa, promoted Taiwan-Japan youth dialogue, and has spoken on the importance (and obstacles) to bilateral trade agreements and regional integration. This experience positions her well to speak on U.S. alliances in the Indo-Pacific and integrate increased multilateralization of U.S.-Taiwan relations.
For those hoping to deepen U.S.-Taiwan relations, Hsiao’s background, youth, views, and personal relationships come at the perfect time. U.S.-China relations are at a nadir, and Washington and Taipei are actively deepening their relations across diplomatic and military realms. With Hsiao as a facilitator of U.S.-Taiwan relations, momentum is only added to the shift in the strategic triangle between the U.S., China, and Taiwan. The extent of her personal capacity—both in public and behind closed doors—will certainly be robust given her background and the geopolitical environment we find ourselves in today.