TAIWAN’S not had an easy ride of it of late. Under mounting pressure from Beijing, the self-ruled island is struggling to maintain its dwindling number of allies and straining to keep its foothold on the world stage.
While China has used money and influence to entice away many of Taiwan’s allies – most recently El Salvador – Taiwan does manage to maintain one rather powerful friend. One that China itself is struggling with. The golden egg of allies – the United States.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has just returned from a brief stopover in the US where she visited Houston and Los Angeles. While there she met with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, showing the bipartisan support for Taiwan.
The visit had the desired effect of portraying the friendly ties between the two administrations while irking Beijing in the process. This can hardly be considered an accident given the fraught ties in this contentious diplomatic triangle.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, saying the self-ruled island has no right to maintain its own relations with foreign countries. While the United States hasn’t officially recognised Taiwan’s sovereignty since 1979 when it shifted the recognising China’s communist party, it maintains ties.
Thank you @Astro_Ellen & @AstroIronMike for coming out on Sunday for a behind-the-scenes tour of @NASA_Johnson. Missed @space_station's #Taiwan fly-by by 23 minutes. Look forward to finding ways of how Taiwan can better support international space efforts. pic.twitter.com/QWOuXm761R
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) August 19, 2018
To add insult to injury Tsai visited the Johnson Space Centre – the home of Nasa – which is off limits to China’s scientists due to security fears. The president, however, was welcomed along with Taiwanese media who were given full access for the first time ever.
The visit clearly demonstrated the warm ties between Taiwan and the Trump administration, appearing in direct contrast to the US president’s increasingly fraught relationship with Beijing.
Just today, the two locked-horns once again in their escalating trade war as both Washington and Beijing implemented 25 percent tariffs on US$16 billion worth of each other’s goods.
Trump has threatened to put duties on almost all of the more than US$500 billion of Chinese goods exported to the United States annually unless Beijing agrees to sweeping changes to its intellectual property practices, industrial subsidy programmes and tariff structures, and buys more US goods.
He has also accused China’s President Xi Jinping of seeking to derail US efforts to see North Korea denuclearise.
Trump has rarely shied away from angering China and Tsai’s visit proved to be his latest tool to get under their skin. After his election victory, while still president-elect, Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Tsai, marking the first time since 1979 that a US President or President-elect had directly spoken with a Taiwan leader.
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) August 20, 2018
He also implemented the Taiwan Travel Act back in March knowing that it would ruffle feathers in Beijing. The Act allows for the movement of diplomats of all levels between the US and Taiwan.
In June, the US poured money into a new US$255 million building containing the American Institute in Taiwan – essentially Washington’s de facto embassy in the country.
Last year, the Trump administration also approved its first significant arms package valued at US$1.4 billion for Taiwan, the first such sale since the Obama administration’s last approved package in December 2015.
Trump’s understanding of the impact in China of these open displays of friendship have so far paid off for Taiwan.
But being lined up as a bargaining chip for the Trump administration could put the island in a precarious position.
As The Washington Post highlighted in an editorial, Trump is ultimately concerned with making deals for short term gains, and likely has no deep commitment to democratic values or to supporting a free Taiwan.
The overt warming of ties between Washington and Taipei could be more to do with playing Beijing than valuing Taiwan, leading to fears Trump may be willing to abandon support for Taiwan if he gets something in exchange.