Top US Diplomat for Asia, Whose Nomination Is on Hold, Has a Record of Pandering to Beijing

April 17, 2018 Updated: April 26, 2018

A State Department career diplomat who tentatively heads the nation’s top diplomatic office for East Asia has a record of pandering to pressure from the People’s Republic of China, in marked contrast to the Trump administration’s broader strategy to push back against Beijing’s aggression. The Epoch Times has also learned that the senior diplomat, whose nomination is now on hold, may have made misleading statements to the Senate during her confirmation hearing in February.

Susan Thornton, a career State Department officer, has been filling in since March 2017 as the acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, a position that leads the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP). EAP is one of the department’s most important offices, administrating U.S. policies and diplomatic relations with dozens of countries across the Asia-Pacific region.

Thornton’s formal nomination to the position did not come until December 2017, when then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally assuaged the opposition from other administration officials. They thought Thornton was too soft on Beijing and ill-suited to head the U.S. diplomatic effort in Asia at a time when the Trump administration is hardening U.S. strategy to confront the challenges posed by the Chinese regime.

However, Tillerson was fired by President Donald Trump in March before Thornton could be formally confirmed by the Senate, and there are reports that Thornton’s nomination is now in a state of limbo, although she could be expected to stay in her current acting position for months before secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo is able to find a successor.

Some pointed to Thornton’s nomination hearing on Feb. 15 as the point where things started to go wrong for her.

During the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) repeatedly pressed Thornton to explain why the flag of Taiwan was mysteriously removed in January from the websites of the U.S. trade representative and the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Taiwan expressed great disappointment about the change, which was perceived by international observers as a sign that the United States could be caving to pressure from the Chinese regime.

In response, Thornton said that the removal of Taiwan’s flag was consistent with U.S. policy, but declined to specify why it was done on her watch.

“The Consular Affairs Bureau rolled out a new website for travel advisory that was done through a contract, was not seen by our office following the publication. We don’t recognize Taiwan as an independent country and we don’t recognize the flag of the ROC as a country where we have official relations,” Thornton said in response to Rubio.

Thornton’s testimony has since been disputed by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), the chairman of the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific under the House foreign affairs committee, who said that the flag removal was in fact prompted by a 2015 change to the State Department’s internal, unpublished guidelines on relations with Taiwan.

Epoch Times Photo
Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) holding a printout of screenshots of U.S. State Department websites that shows the flag of Taiwan was removed, during a hearing over the nomination of Susan Thornton on Feb. 14 at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. (Screenshot via Senate hearing video).

Yoho first told this to The Epoch Times on Feb. 14, one day before Thornton’s testimony, and said that he had received the information based on an inquiry he made to the State Department. Yoho has since discussed this situation in an op-ed published in The National Interest, and said Thornton’s Senate testimony obscures the fact that the alteration of the guidelines was “an affirmative policy choice.”

According to Yoho, the decision to modify the guidelines was made under the Obama administration and executed under the Trump administration, whose high-level officials were taken by surprise when they came across news of the Taiwan flag’s removal from U.S. websites.

“In 2015, a new version of the memo was issued, which included a new rule prohibiting the display of Taiwan ‘symbols of sovereignty’ on U.S. government websites or online accounts,” Yoho wrote. “It appears that the new rule in the memo, not longstanding policy, is the true reason for the removal of Taiwan’s flag.”

Yoho also said that it is “difficult to believe” that Thornton, who was the deputy assistant secretary of her current bureau in 2015, would have been unaware of such a change.

The Epoch Times could not independently verify Yoho’s information regarding the decision made by the Obama administration. But State Department insiders say that the Taiwan guidelines Yoho referred to indeed exist, though their content has rarely been made available to the public.

“The decision [to modify the guidelines] could have been a stealth decision when Daniel Russel was assistant secretary because, if publicly known, it would have aroused considerable anger in Taiwan,” said William Stanton, a former U.S. diplomat who served from 2009 to 2012 as the director of American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy to the island nation.

Stanton, who is now a professor at National Taiwan University, said that U.S. government contractors are unlikely to make the move to remove the flag of Taiwan on their own, as Thornton initially suggested to Rubio. He also said that it is “improbable” that a career diplomat such as Thornton would misspeak with regard to such a controversial event in a Senate hearing.

The State Department’s EAP Bureau responded to The Epoch Times’ request for comment with only a short policy talking point, and did not address any questions concerning Thornton’s hearing or the removal of Taiwan’s flag. The Epoch Times could not reach Thornton directly for comment.

“The United States remains committed to our one-China policy based on the three joint communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act. Our longstanding policy has not changed, which has been consistent across decades and presidential administrations,” said State Department spokesperson Grace Choi.

Bowing to Beijing’s Pressure

Thornton’s nomination is being actively opposed by Rubio and Trump administration officials, at a time when Trump’s national security strategy has labeled China specifically as a strategic rival, in response to the regime’s ever-growing aggression.

“On every tactical question of consequence on Asia since the inauguration, Susan has been opposed to taking serious action to counter Chinese economic and political aggression,” said a senior White House official quoted by The Washington Post.

June Teufel Dreyer, professor of political science at the University of Miami, told The Epoch Times, “[Thornton] is part of the same group of entrenched bureaucrats that Trump promised to change.” Dreyer also pointed out that Thornton’s conciliatory stance toward Beijing is sharply at odds with that of John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, who is well-known for advocating a hardline approach in dealing with China.

In the same Feb. 15 Senate hearing, Rubio also pressed Thornton to answer why the State Department blocked efforts by the FBI on May 26, 2017, to arrest a group of intelligence agents from China’s Ministry of State Security who, in clear violation of U.S. laws, traveled from China to New York under transit visas to approach Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese billionaire who has been critical of the Chinese regime.

Thornton admitted that the State Department, through an interagency conference call, had pushed to block the FBI officers, who were already surrounding the Chinese intelligence agents, from taking them into custody. But she insisted that she was “not sure” whether she or her EAP bureau had been involved in the process.

Had the four Chinese agents been arrested at the time, it would have triggered a major international incident between Washington and Beijing and would have embarrassed the Chinese regime, which had sought to suppress any news reports about Guo and to downplay its intelligence activities in the United States.

Epoch Times Photo
Exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui holds photocopies of alleged document that shows Chinese regime send spies to the United States, at a press conference in Washington, on Oct. 5, 2017. U.S. State Department reportedly blocked FBI from arresting a group of Chinese intelligence officers who were trying to approach Guo in New York on May 26, 2017. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

The Epoch Times has also learned from a defense industry source, who asked not to be named, that Thornton has been deeply opposed to approving a marketing license for U.S. companies to help with Taiwan’s submarine program, support that Taiwan has requested for years but was only granted on April 7.

The same source, who possesses insider knowledge of U.S.–Taiwan arms sales, also said that the sudden change of heart toward Taiwan’s request might have been a deliberate move by Thornton to gain Pompeo’s backing, as he is considering whether to replace her.

The Chinese regime has vehemently protested the U.S. decision to allow companies to help with Taiwan’s submarine program, just as it has routinely protested every U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. Many analysts and the Taiwan military itself say a new fleet of submarines is badly needed for Taiwan to counter the regime’s military threat, but years of waiting for U.S. approval to help has significantly delayed the process.

Thornton has also been less than enthusiastic about confronting the Chinese regime’s many human rights abuses, according to Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, a Texas-based NGO that focuses on providing aid to Christians who are persecuted by the regime.

“She is a bureaucrat, a gatekeeper,” said Fu. “No one there [at the EAP bureau’s China desk] wants to move forward with those human rights initiatives on China.”