The Future of US-Taiwan Relations Under China's Shadow

13 Feb, 2017    ·   5234

Namrata Hasija argues that the US-Taiwan relationship under Trump remains uncertain in terms of upgradation but certain in terms of continuation.

Namrata Hasija
Namrata Hasija
Senior Research Officer
As soon as Donald Trump was elected as the president of the US, speculations from scholars came in quickly, especially on how global geopolitics would be reshaped. His phone conversation with Taiwan's President, Tsai Ing-wen, soon after his election, did create some ripples in East Asia. This phone call brought about two important divergences in the US' policy towards Taiwan; first, after a forty year hiatus, there had been a direct interaction between the heads of the two countries and Trump addressed Tsai as the President of Taiwan. Trump’s second statement has been that anything and everything - including the 'One China Policy' - is negotiable. This made strategists sit up and predictions of realignment in US-Taiwan and US-China relations were made. 

Taiwan and mainland China have been guarded in their reactions to this phone call, still uncertain about Trump’s foreign policy. China’s official reaction to date has been mixed. In the initial statement, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed Taiwanese leaders for the phone call, calling it a “petty gambit.” On 3 December 2016, the China Daily took a condescending swipe with an editorial, titled “No Need to Over-Interpret Tsai-Trump Phone Call,” opining that “For Trump, it exposed nothing but his and his transition team's inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs.” Meanwhile, Global Times took a hard stance and called Trump an inexperienced, complacent and brash billionaire. The article further stated that China is prepared to engage in a long-term struggle on the Taiwan question with the US, and added that the one-China policy is the political foundation of bilateral ties and that it is "non-negotiable.”

Taiwanese officials and media also demonstrated mixed reactions. Some were euphoric and said US-Taiwan relations will be consolidated and witness more high-level exchanges during Trump’s presidency. Some analysts were skeptical and felt that the US would use Taiwan as a bargaining chip for economic gains.

Trump’s coming to power in the US has created additional problems in the already volatile China-Taiwan relations. After Tsai’s election in Taiwan, her silence on the 1992 consensus infuriated China, which then broke off communications with Taiwan. China blamed the US for interfering in cross-strait relations and warned Washington that "China is preparing for a final solution by non-peaceful means." Global Times also took a strong position on the former US President Barack Obama’s signing of the ‘Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act’, which for the first time authorised higher level exchanges between US civilian officials above the level of US Assistant Secretary of Defense and active duty US military officers and their Taiwanese counterparts. Global Times called for military pressure on Taiwan after all these actions by the US. Not only the media but the Chinese government too has increased its military activities and aggressive rhetoric against Taiwan. In January 2017, China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, accompanied by other ships went into the Taiwan Strait during a drill in the South China Sea. China has already alienated Taiwan in the international arena but after Tsai’s election and Trump’s phone call, it has begun building additional pressure on countries that recognise Taiwan as the Republic of China. In December 2016, São Tomé and Príncipe switched their diplomatic allegiance to Beijing, to which China's foreign ministry responded, stating that “China expresses appreciation of this, and welcomes São Tomé back onto the correct path of the ‘one China’ principle." 

Even after this tense situation, the US invited a Taiwanese delegation to attend Donald Trump's oath taking ceremony despite Chinese pressure. Former Taiwanese Premier Yu Shyi-kun led the delegation and said that the Trump administration posed more of an opportunity than a challenge for Taiwan, adding that the nation should take the opportunity to improve relations with the US. The delegation visited think tanks including the Washington-based American Institute In Taiwan, and met with members of the US Senate and House of Representatives to convey Taiwan’s ideas and sincerity regarding the development of bilateral relations.

However, on 10 February 2017, Trump stumped everyone again by taking a U-turn on the ‘One China Policy’. People’s Daily (RenminRibao) elaborated on this and said that Trump called China's President Xi Jinping and reaffirmed the US' policy of accepting the ‘One China Policy’ and that Xi thanked Trump for accepting the core principle that was the basis of Washington-Beijing relations. During the conversation, both promised to work towards the enhancement of communication and cooperation to further strengthen the relationship. Chinese official media, especially Global Times, did not shy away from taking a jibe at Trump and stated that “Trump has stopped openly challenging China's core interests, and instead showed respect to Beijing. The change creates an impression that Trump is learning about his role in the realm of Sino-US ties. He's now sending a new message that he does not want to be a disruptor of the Sino-US relations.” 

This change in Trump’s rhetoric on China indicates that the US will never sacrifice its relations with China for Taiwan and US diplomats too understand that a secure and confident Taiwan is better able to constructively engage Beijing. Thus, Trump’s team must have convinced him not to challenge Beijing on this issue that might lead to direct friction between US, China and Taiwan. Uncertainties still loom in the US-China relationship but they will be about specific interests and not on the ‘One China policy’. The US-Taiwan relationship under Trump remains uncertain in terms of upgradation but certain in terms of continuation.