Dispatch

Wary of Trump, Taiwan Shies From Spotlight in President’s Asia Trip

Most countries love engagement and attention from the U.S. president. But Taiwan has been burned before.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen oversees a military drill on May 25, 2017.
(Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen oversees a military drill on May 25, 2017. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When a U.S. president travels abroad, foreign countries often clamor for his attention. But as Donald Trump visits Asia this week, one doesn’t even want to be mentioned: Taiwan.

There’s a nagging sense of fear and trepidation swirling in Taiwan over Trump’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week. Trump’s brash, off-the-cuff style, disdain for diplomatic nuance, and penchant for dealmaking have many Taiwanese worried he could shove their country uncomfortably into the spotlight just when it is managing to minimize tensions with Beijing.

Taiwan’s top fear seems to be an unlikely one: that Trump could be tempted to sell out Taiwan to Beijing somehow in exchange for a grand bargain over the North Korea crisis or trade, two of his top foreign-policy priorities. It wouldn’t be the first time that Trump has linked otherwise separate issues in the quest for an overarching deal — earlier this year, he quietly shelved accusations that China manipulates its currency when he sought Beijing’s help with North Korea.

“We are very afraid that when the Taiwan issue is mentioned, it can be connected with some other issue,” said Hsu Szu-chien, president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a government-funded nonprofit organization. “My fear is that [Trump] can be very short-sighted,” he added. “There is always unknown risks hidden behind that.”

U.S. officials insist this fear is completely unfounded in their discussions with Taipei, Taiwanese officials told Foreign Policy. They point to a hefty $1.42 billion arms package to Taipei, first announced in June, and steadfast congressional support for the autonomous island to dispel frayed nerves.

But anxiety still abounds in Taipei.

Katharine Chang, minister of the Taiwanese Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees relations with Beijing, acknowledged the “rumors” that Trump could use Taiwan as leverage in his meeting with Xi. But she said she’s not worried.

“I think we are cautiously optimistic,” Chang told a group of reporters. “But still, we have to remind the American government that Taiwan should not be used a bargaining chip. And basically, I don’t think the United States will use Taiwan as a bargaining chip,” she said.

But given the uneasy relations between Taiwan and China, there’s a more basic fear: That Trump could say anything about the contentious island at all.

China-Taiwan relations took a nosedive when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen assumed office in May of 2016. While Tsai ran on a platform of maintaining a status quo relationship with Beijing, her Democratic Progressive Party has traditionally supported eventual independence. She replaced Ma Ying-jeou, who had a more accommodating stance toward Beijing. Wary of Tsai, Beijing severed regular dialogue channels with Taiwan. In the meantime, it has ramped up defense spending and conducted military exercises near Taiwan as a warning sign and show of force.

Then came Trump’s surprise election win. In December of 2016, Trump fielded a phone call from Tsai and then tweeted about it — becoming what is believed to be the first president-elect or president to speak to a Taiwanese leader in nearly 40 years. U.S. diplomats conceded the call was a rookie mistake, but the damage was done. It sent shockwaves through Asia and infuriated Beijing, which stepped up efforts to diplomatically isolate what it always considered a renegade province.

China convinced the tiny African nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, one of only the handful of countries around the world that formally recognized Taiwan’s independence, to switch allegiance to China just weeks after the infamous phone call. In June, China got Panama to dump Taiwan, bringing the number of countries that formally recognize Taiwan down to 20.

But since then, Tsai has avoided provoking Beijing and tamped down talk of independence. Xi, in his 19th Party Congress address last month, said he would “respect the current social system in Taiwan and the lifestyles of the Taiwan compatriots” and didn’t set a date for reunification.

Hsu said Taipei was chastened by the fallout of its brief PR victory after the phone call. Now that tensions have ebbed again, officials don’t want Trump to rock the boat.

“It would be better if Taiwan is not mentioned at all by Trump,” Hsu said. “That’s reassuring. That’s good enough.”

Update, Nov. 17, 2017: This article was updated to reflect Tsai and the DPP’s stance on independence.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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