Since US president-elect Donald Trump won the US presidential election, he has been trying to create bargaining chips that he can use against China after he takes office. The telephone call between President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Trump might have stirred up public opinion in Taiwan, but only considering Taiwan-US-China relations from a Taiwanese perspective leaves a partial reality or even a reality as perceived by a weaker party. The US holds the high ground in this zero-sum game and therefore it is of the utmost importance that Taiwan understands how the US looks at the situation.
The National Committee on American Foreign Policy — founded by Hans Morgenthau, the pioneer of international relations as a discipline — visited high-level officials on both sides of the Taiwan Strait at the end of last year. It then released a report detailing the concerns of Taiwan and China from the US’ perspective.
During the election campaign, Trump said that the US would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which caused worries in Taiwan that US isolationism would rise, but those concerns were alleviated after the Tsai-Trump call. Of course, Beijing was angry, but it has shown self-restraint in dealing with the US, instead venting its anger on Taiwan, punishing Taipei by establishing diplomatic relations with Sao Tome and Principe and sending military aircraft to fly around the nation.
Taiwan’s economy has remained weak since Tsai took office and it continues to rely on China. The trade deal was regarded as Taiwan’s opportunity to break away from China’s economic and trade framework, but as Trump is planning to withdraw from the agreement, Taiwan is less sure of how to proceed. Tsai does not recognize the so-called “1992 consensus,” but she does adhere to the “one China” policy in certain respects, including acknowledging that she is president of the Republic of China in accordance with the Constitution. She has also avoided any separatist language since taking office.
Although Tsai does not accept the “1992 consensus,” she does not explicitly reject it either. Before the Tsai-Trump call, she even attempted to contact Beijing to persuade it to accept “other modes of understanding” to replace the “1992 consensus.” However, she was unsuccessful and Beijing lost all interest in talking to her after she called Trump.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is now worried that Taiwan has become a bargaining chip, although in an interview Tsai said that the US and China were “of equal importance” to Taiwan.
The committee said this is the harshest time for Sino-US relations in the past 20 years. If the Trump administration abandons the “one China” policy, it would challenge what China regards as its last line of defense to maintain its territorial integrity. The Tsai-Trump call also stirred up Chinese hawks, who are threatening to curtail cooperation in many areas in which the US and China have made significant progress, such as Iran, North Korea, climate change, cyberattacks and anti-piracy efforts. For its part, Beijing has said it would first retaliate against Taiwanese businesses in China, followed by US businesses.
China’s position is to patiently wait for Trump to take office, but if it feels things are getting out of hand, it will act to defend its sovereignty and integrity, “no matter the cost.”
That said, China is also stressing the idea that, as long as Tsai can propose an acceptable alternative to the “1992 consensus,” there is still room for negotiation.
Therefore, the New York-based committee recommended protecting Taiwan’s democracy to reassure Taipei and support efforts to increase its participation in the international community, but without putting it at risk of coming under more pressure from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Both sides of the Taiwan Strait should construct a temporary framework in which they can coexist. That would allow the “status quo” to be maintained.
The committee is a nonprofit think tank, affiliated to neither the US’ Republican or Democratic parties. Its observations will presumably make interesting reading for the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party, and show them how different the US position is from what they suppose.
The big questions are: Will Trump challenge the CCP’s sovereignty after he takes office? Does Trump want to rile the CCP in the hopes it will strengthen his hand? If the CCP does give in, to what extent will Taiwan be betrayed? If this means Beijing does try to take Taiwan by force, will the US just sit back and let it happen?
If the CCP decides not to play ball, will Taiwan get the chance to move toward legal independence over the next four to eight years?
Taiwan should take this time to ask China to implement a multiparty political system and democratic direct elections. While Trump’s intentions are unknown at the moment, whether the two sides of the Taiwan Strait merge or go their separate ways all depends on whether China democratizes.
Albert Shihyi Chiu is an associate professor at Tunghai University’s Department of Political Science.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai