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Taiwan is driving China-U.S. tensions. Meet the person right in the middle

American Institute in Taiwan director Sandra Oudkirk.
American Institute in Taiwan
American Institute in Taiwan director Sandra Oudkirk.

When President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met at the APEC summit this November, one of the top agenda items was Taiwan, an island China claims as its own. Xi called Taiwan the "most important" and "most sensitive" issue driving U.S.-China tensions.

The top U.S. representative in Taiwan, Sandra Oudkirk, is trying to navigate that tricky terrain.

Who is she? Oudkirk became the director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) — the U.S. office in Taipei — in July 2021.


What is the latest?

  • Taiwan is gearing up for presidential elections in Jan. 2024. Taiwanese civil society groups warn Chinese state actors may plant false narratives on Taiwan's social media platforms and news outlets in the run up to stoke fear among Taiwanese voters and distrust for the U.S.
  • Taiwan is expressing low levels of confidence in the U.S. as a stable partner for Taiwan. A recent poll from the prominent Taipei-based research institute Academia Sinica found 34% of people agreed that the U.S. was a trustworthy country, a drop of more than 11 percentage points since 2021.
Biden and Xi walk together after a meeting during the APEC Leaders' week in November.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Biden and Xi walk together after a meeting during the APEC Leaders' week in November.


Listen to the State of the World episode on how China is trying to gradually wear down Taiwan's defenses without ever invading.


What is she saying? Oudkirk spoke to NPR in Taiwan this week. Here's what she said.

On whether the U.S. would heed China's request to stop selling arms to Taiwan and to support it using peaceful means to take control of the island:

On whether she thinks China is planning to invade Taiwan in the near future:

On how she thinks the U.S. can push back on false claims and conspiracy theories circulating through Taiwanese social media and news that the U.S. is not a reliable partner to Taiwan:

On the United States' economic relationship with Taiwan – and how it's not just about semiconductor chips, which Taiwan leads the world in manufacturing:

Taiwanese sailors salute the island's flag on the deck of the Panshih supply ship after taking part in annual drills in Jan. 2018.
Mandy Cheng / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Taiwanese sailors salute the island's flag on the deck of the Panshih supply ship after taking part in annual drills in Jan. 2018.

What now?

  • The Senate is deliberating on a proposed military aid bill that would give more money to defense initiatives that counter China and help Taiwan defend itself. The bill has hit a snag, mostly from lawmakers who want to pare down funding and separate out funding streams to Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, and to the US-Mexico border.
  • Taiwan's presidential elections in Jan. 2024 are heating up. The island's opposition KMT and TPP parties tried to work together and run on a joint ticket earlier this November but their short-lived collaboration dramatically fell apart after the candidates couldn't agree on who would run as the presidential nominee.
  • Meanwhile, Taiwan's de facto ambassador to the U.S. Bi-khim Hsiao is running as the vice presidential candidate on the ticket of the ruling party, the DPP. Their biggest challengers will be the KMT, which has picked a deeply-conservative vice presidential candidate who favors closer ties with China.


Learn more:

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.