How a pair of US stopovers could reshape Taiwan's ties with US, China

Taiwanese President Tsai may meet with Trump administration officials during layovers on her upcoming trip to Central America – testing both Taiwan-US ties and China's resolve to diplomatically isolate the island.

Taiwan Presidential Office/AP
President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during an international press conference at the presidential office in Taipei on New Year's Eve 2016.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen heads to Central America Saturday, to shore up support from four Central American countries that some worry may sever ties with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.

But the more crucial test for Ms. Tsai may actually come during her stopovers en route – in Houston and San Francisco.

There, against the backdrop of her controversial Dec. 2 phone call with US President-elect Trump, which generated a sharp-tongued reaction from China, all eyes will be on her meetings. Some speculate those could include Trump team leaders or senior US Republican Party figures.

If such unusually high-level diplomatic contact goes ahead, it is sure to test both Taiwan's upbeat but fragile new ties with Mr. Trump and China’s resolve to squelch Taiwanese diplomacy around the world. A stronger Taiwan link may also signal that the US president will be bolder in handling China than past administrations, which have abided by the "One China" policy that recognizes Beijing as the sole government of China. Beijing views self-ruled Taiwan as a part of its territory that should ultimately be reunited with the mainland, an idea Tsai rejects.

China’s reaction to Tsai’s pursuit of better US relations over time may depend on what type of links she tries to form, says Alan Romberg, East Asia Program director with the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

“If they are economic ties that mainly are helping people in Taiwan to raise their living standards, that's one thing,” he says. “But if they are in the nature of pushing the envelope in ways seen as tending toward de jure or even, to some extent, de facto independence, the reaction will be significant.”

A new route for Taiwan?

China demands that other countries not treat Taiwan as a state, limiting Taiwan's ability to sign trade deals and join bodies such as the United Nations.

Beijing has asked the US government to bar Tsai from her scheduled stopovers. Taiwanese presidents normally lay over for a day or two in major cities to see low-level US officials and meet Taiwanese business groups and influential Taiwanese based in the US. US officials normally allow them rest and refueling stops en route to Latin America, since the US is on the fastest flight path.

Transiting Taiwan presidents seldom meet high-level US officials, who are mindful of upsetting their trade, investment, and security relationships with China.

But this month’s stops in the US follow the 12-minute Tsai-Trump call, which surprised Beijing leaders, whose stature as heads of the No. 2 world economy has typically dissuaded US politicians from such contact with Taiwanese counterparts. Prior to the call, the last high-level contact between Taiwan and the US was in the 1970s, when the US dropped formal ties with Taiwan in favor of larger, faster-growing China.

The Taiwan government will not say whether Tsai plans to meet Mr. Trump’s team members or Republican members of Congress. 

“President Tsai meeting with Trump people would accelerate the perception that the Trump administration plans to upgrade Washington's relationship with Taipei and expects China to make concessions to the US if Beijing wants to limit that upgrade,” says Denny Roy, senior fellow with the East-West Center think tank in Honolulu.

High stakes

Taiwanese generally appear to favor greater engagement abroad. Opinion polls last year show that they want more government action on Taiwan’s China relations and on foreign policy.

“Because Taiwan’s international status is tough, we’re basically optimistic about any chance to go overseas,” says Taiwan ruling party legislator Lee Chun-yi. “We have to see whether China’s reaction is small or big, but the main thing is how to let Taiwan be heard.”

But some fear the US president-elect would use closer relations with Taiwan as a bargaining chip to win trade concessions from China. China says Taiwan's status is not negotiable.

Taiwan stands to increase military exchanges with the US and tap Washington for advanced weapons for defense against China. Officials in Taipei have long pressed the US for a free trade deal, helping its $48.5 billion worth of exports to the US as of 2015.

But if used as a bargaining chip and China gives concessions, Taiwan could lose its military and trade links.

“There's a risk that in the end the Trump Administration might trade away Taiwan's interests if it could get what it considered a ‘good deal’ from China on some other issue,” Mr. Roy says.

Shoring up support

China could express its displeasure with a potential Tsai meeting in the US using tools from statements of protest to the US government to action directed at both Washington and Taipei, analysts say.

Since the Tsai-Trump call, China has sailed its sole aircraft carrier on three sides of Taiwan in a show of force. Analysts expect more military maneuvers and more grabs of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies if Tsai meets senior people in the US.

Tsai also risks reaching El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua next week – and finding that one might have suddenly switched sides to China, pushing Taiwan’s total roster of allies below 21, some analysts say.

The African nation Sao Tome and Principe switched sides after 19 years last month, raising fears that China has started to buy off Taiwan’s allies to squelch its foreign relations. The foreign minister in Taipei said last month Taiwan would not use “money diplomacy” to vie with China for diplomatic recognition.

Countries that recognize Taiwan are mostly small and poor ones that give it a voice in the UN in exchange for development aid. More than 170 nations, including the world’s most powerful, are on China’s side.

“Those Central American countries, you can’t tell. They are very unpredictable,” says Shane Lee, political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. “China might take some actions to undermine the whole trip.”

Neither the foreign ministry in Taipei nor the embassies of Central American countries reached by the Monitor Thursday would give details this week on Tsai’s plans, and the ministry declined to elaborate on development aid to those countries.

“Next week I will visit four Central American allies and not only to solidify diplomatic ties but also to support foreign relations colleagues on the front line and to let the whole world see Taiwan’s ambition and determination,” Tsai told the news conference.

Tsai might offer more development aid to stop the Central American countries from switching sides to China, says Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Project-specific aid would head off speculation of checkbook diplomacy, he says.

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