WASHINGTON – Escalating tensions between the U.S. and China over trade, the South China Sea and recent arms sales are pushing Taiwan back into the American foreign policy spotlight, attracting Beijing’s ire.
After a precedent-shattering phone call with Trump when he was president-elect, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has found an increasingly receptive audience in the U.S. during the recent disputes. She’s been aided in that by the presence of long-standing allies in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, including National Security Adviser John Bolton.
“The Republic of China has more high-level friends in this administration than it’s had for many, many years,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, who focuses on Asian security issues at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to Taiwan by its official name. “It’s also apparent that the administration has an approach that is going to contest China on many different fronts.”
While it’s not clear how far the Trump administration is willing to boost Taiwan, it is seen as an increasingly valuable point of leverage over Beijing, which considers the island’s fate a “core interest” — more important than nearly any other issue. A faction in Bolton’s National Security Council is seeking a more aggressive posture, including by sending more warships through the Taiwan Strait, while Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have advocated proceeding with caution, according to one current and one former administration official.
An NSC spokesperson said the president didn’t need to give further authorization for the U.S. Navy to sail or operate wherever international law allows.
Decades have passed since the fate of Taiwan was considered so important that it featured in the 1960 U.S. presidential debate. The U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and officially recognized the Communist government in Beijing in 1979. But the brewing confrontations over trade and security have created a new opportunity for the island to push back against China’s bid to steadily erode its influence overseas.
Taiwan’s importance to Beijing was why Trump set off a shock wave in China when, as president-elect, he took a call from Tsai. The move raised questions about America’s continuing commitment to the “One China” policy, which underpinned the restoration of ties between the two powers and sees the U.S. recognize that Beijing represents China and its view that it has sovereignty over Taiwan, but also considers the island’s status to be unsettled.
The move prompted then-President Barack Obama to offer a rare rebuke of the president-elect. “If you’re going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences are,” Obama said at the time.
While Trump has since affirmed U.S. support for the policy, his administration has followed its predecessors and gone ahead with weapons sales to Taiwan and made clear that the island’s fate will feature in a broader realignment toward greater confrontation with leaders in Beijing.
In an Oct. 4 speech, Vice President Mike Pence assailed China for a series of moves chipping away at Taiwan’s diplomatic presence overseas and its ramping up of pressure on private companies to refer to Taiwan as a province of China rather than what he called a “distinct geographic entity.”
“America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people,” Pence said.
The speech followed sharp condemnation from the U.S. after China persuaded three Latin American and Caribbean countries to switch their allegiances and declare diplomatic ties with China, rather than Taiwan.
Adding to the pressure from the U.S., Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act in February over Chinese objections, arguing that American policy should be to encourage more Cabinet-level officials to visit. And prior to Trump’s inauguration, Bolton had advocated sending U.S. troops to the island.
China has tolerated Taiwan’s autonomy — and U.S. arms sales to the island — so long as both sides respect the “One China” policy. Tsai, however, has refused to accept that framework. She echoed Pence’s remarks with her own speech on Taiwan’s national day last week, describing China as a threat to the international order.
“Our democratic transition lightens our dark past and provides a ray of light in the dark night for all those seeking democracy,” Tsai said.
That debate — and the U.S. moves — haven’t gone unnoticed in Beijing, where officials have assailed the U.S. in increasingly sharp terms over Taiwan, a tone that coincides with President Xi Jinping’s own greater assertiveness toward Taiwan since Tsai, who leans more in favor of independence than her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, came to power.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered an unusually sharp rebuke during Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s visit to Beijing on Oct. 8. Wang urged the U.S. to stop “incorrect actions which harm China’s core interests.” While he didn’t specify what he meant, there were many potential culprits: Pence’s speech, the announcements of $1.4 billion in arms sales in 2017 and another $330 million proposed in September.
As the debate roils, analysts caution that the U.S. is still a long way off from 1960, when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy traded barbs over the tiny islands of Matsu and Quemoy — now Kinmen — and whether the U.S. would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in the event of a Chinese invasion.
Taiwan is no longer seen as a bulwark of resistance against a Communist threat, and the economic relationship between China and the U.S., the world’s two biggest economies, is too important to risk war, several analysts said.
“Although Washington’s rhetoric is loud and its provocative movements are frequent, as a researcher who followed the issue for years, I don’t worry that much about a fundamental change in status quo,” said Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Relations of Nanjing University. “If the Trump administration abandons the One-China policy and fully support Tsai Ing-wen militarily, that will be doomsday for U.S.-China relations.”