Late last year Taiwan asked the U.S. government to set up immigration preclearance center at the Taipei Taoyuan airport. And it’s not for the reason that many travelers assume.
- It turns out Taiwan wants U.S. immigration preclearance for the same reason frequent flyer award seats and fare deals are going to be easily available on flights between the U.S. and Taipei for quite awhile.
- The goal is greater cooperation with the U.S. especially on security. There are going to be more flights (even with empty seats) between the two countries. Taiwan is looking for a security buffer from China, and to bolster U.S. ties and support, making it more difficult to invade in advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expected re-election next year.
- Some readers were skeptical of this take, but several U.S. Senators have written a letter in support of preclearance for Taiwan – an odd issue otherwise – and emphasize that it will “reinforce the importance of our relationship with Taiwan.” This will antagonize China.
What Is Immigration Preclearance And Why It’s Offered
U.S. Immigration preclearance means you clear immigration and customers at your departure airport, before getting on the plane, rather than when you arrive in the U.S. This way you get off at your destination city in the U.S. as though you had been on a domestic flight.
There are currently preclearance airports in
- Dublin and Shannon, Ireland
- Freeport and Nassau, Bahamas
- Abu Dhabi
- Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg in Canada
Lucky at One Mile at a Time is correct that this is often an inconvenience to frequent flyers. If you have Global Entry it may not save you any time at all through the immigration process. You often have to show up at the preclearance facility an hour before your flight departs. And there’s often little to do once you get through.
However the primary reason these facilities are offered is not passenger convenience. While Lucky notes, “airports seem to view these facilities as a competitive advantage, marketing it as a way to have a more seamless trip” this is truly secondary.
Instead the primary impetus for these facilities is security cooperation. The U.S. prefers to stop people from boarding planes before they reach U.S. soil, rather than turning them around once they arrive in the States. Other countries like these facilities because they like security cooperation with the United States. And this explains why Taiwan wants U.S. immigration preclearance for the main Taipei international airport.
Why Taiwan Wants U.S. Immigration Preclearance In Taipei
Hong Kong’s national security law was imposed on June 30. It represents the end of ‘one country, two systems’. And it demonstrates Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressiveness in advance of the Twentieth Party Congress where he will seek election to a third term in late 2022.
Taiwan sees an aggressive China within its geographic sphere of influence as heightening risk to its own independence. So they want to bolster their ties to the U.S., especially security ties.
- Many Taiwanese in positions of leadership were fearful of a Joe Biden Presidency, assuming that Biden would take a softer stance on China. And Taiwan may be more vulnerable to China than in the past.
- So we can expect to see more flights between Taipei and the U.S., across all of Taiwanese carriers with long haul passenger capabilities – China Airlines, EVA Air, and StarLux.
- And greater ties to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advances these interests even more. Taiwan wants security cooperation with the U.S., though China has traditionally opposed U.S.-Taiwan cooperation. This would amount to U.S. officials operating in what China views as their territory.
- If Taipei gets U.S. preclearance then it’s harder for China to ‘take’ the Taipei international airport, since they’d be taking a U.S. immigration facility staffed by Homeland Security personnel and creating an international incident directly with the U.S. That aligns U.S. and Taiwanese interests and serves as a deterret to China.
I’m not so sure that a Biden Presidency is bad for Taiwan. The Trump campaign actually mistook China Airlines for a Chinese airline in a campaign ad. While Trump has taken a hard line with China overall, at least in terms of rhetoric, he’s also been reluctant to become entangled in foreign wars. He sought withdrawal from Afghanistan, and hasn’t started new ongoing military conflicts. Moreover Joe Biden may be more inclined towards defending implied commitments in the 1988 Taiwan Relations Act.
Moreover at least in the short term it may be too risky for Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan outright. A quick victory would be a domestic political win, a quagmire could endanger his own future. It may be something that he plans post-election, as part of the project to unify Greater China. Taiwan needs to act aggressively now, to be prepared to defend itself, and thereby to deter China from giving it the need to defend itself.
Why U.S. Senators Are Getting Involved
Nine members of Congress have written to the Biden administration seeking approval for a Taipei preclearance facility as a show of support for Taiwan as it’s increasingly under threat from China. This move coincides with the reintroduction of the bipartisan Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act. (HT: One Mile at a Time)
The group of seven Republicans and two Democrats said in a letter dated Thursday that a preclearance facility at the airport “would improve the ease of travel between the United States and Taiwan and reinforce the importance of our relationship with Taiwan.”
The airport “already hosts numerous nonstop flights to the United States, and is a major transit point in Asia,” the lawmakers wrote to Troy Miller, the senior official performing the duties of the commissioner for US Customs and Border Protection.
“Taiwan is America’s ninth-largest trading partner and its government strongly supports Taoyuan airport’s bid for the preclearance facility program,” they added.
Preclearance facilities put US customs agents in a traveler’s starting country to make entry into the US go more smoothly.
Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Gary Peters (D-MI), Mitt Romney (R-UT), John Cornyn (R-TX), and James Inhofe (R-OK), along with Representatives Jim Banks (R-IN), Ed Case (D-HI), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), do not primarily care if preclearance will make travel smoother for frequent flyers. They care about supporting Taiwan against China.
In The Short Term There Will Be More Flights And Award Seats
We are going to see more flights, irrespective of customer demand, because greater linkages with the U.S. serves Taiwan’s national security interest in the face of an aggressive China. Expect Taiwanese carriers to add flights back into markets ahead of much chance of filling those flights.
- That means great opportunities for fare deals (which also promote cross-population between the U.S. and Taiwan) as well as stopover deals (greater familiarity with Taiwan by Americans may lead to greater sympathy when the country needs it).
- And empty seats should mean greater award availability, too, which is helpful for using SkyTeam and Star Alliance miles over Taiwan to the rest of Asia.
Will Taipei Get Immigration Preclearance?
Taiwan has a strategic interest in closer security ties with the U.S. Seeking cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advances that interest. So does adding flights between Taiwan and the U.S. ahead of real passenger demand, which will mean fare deals and award availability.
Whether or not Taipei gets a preclearance facility depends largely on U.S. judgments about its relationship with China. The move will antagonize China, but if the judgment is that it will only antagonize them a little bit then it’s a tool in diplomatic tit-for-tat since many tariff options have already been exhausted or are too costly to enforce. If the State Department believes, however, that this will push China to retaliate then they’re not likely to move forward with the application.