Newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump’s election on Nov. 8 last year has brought about mixed feelings in Taiwan, a small nation whose international status and national security hinge on the policy direction of the US, the world’s leading power, despite being more than 12,000km away.
The US Republican Party’s relatively pro-Taiwan stance, or most importantly its antagonism against China, has raised hopes that Taiwan could stand to gain from a Republican administration, mainly through warmer Taiwan-US ties or larger arms sales packages from the US.
Trump’s provocative rhetoric targeting Beijing and moves that stirred the waters in the Taiwan Strait since his election have reinforced those hopes, in particular the tycoon-turned-politician’s decision to go about telling the world about his unprecedented telephone call with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and his questioning of Washington’s long-standing “one China” policy.
The call, said to have been initiated by Tsai, is the first known direct communication between a Taiwanese president and a US president or president-elect since Washington switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
However, concerns have also emerged across Taiwan that the new US president’s businessman character could make Taiwan a vulnerable chess piece in the US-China tug-of-war.
Against this backdrop, the public has been looking anxiously to the Tsai administration for answers about how Taiwan should engage with such a complicated and unpredictable US leader, while safeguarding and maximizing the nation’s interests.
“International relations are by nature versatile and full of surprises. Outcomes oftentimes run counter to our expectations. With that being said, the US is an important ally of ours, but it is difficult for us to predict Trump’s moves,” said a high-level government official, who declined to be named.
All heads of state chosen through democratic elections should be respected, the official said, but added that continuous communications with the opposition parties and repeated efforts to seek public consensus are required from any democratic administration.
Citing Tsai as an example, the official said she had to make many uneasy adjustments to her plans for the nation.
“It is not like she can just come in and start a revolution,” the official said.
“Even though Trump has many new ideas, he still has to try to forge maximum domestic consensus to ensure his re-election,” the official added.
Turning to how the Tsai administration plans to approach Trump, the official said the government is a team rather than an individual, so it is imperative that Taiwan maintains a good relationship with Trump’s team.
Given that Trump’s team consists of many “old friends of Taiwan” and the low likelihood of them altering their beliefs overnight, “we can afford to have positive expectations of our relations with Trump,” the official added.
Contrary to some political analysts’ concerns that the changes proposed by Trump might come at the expense of Taiwan, the official said no improvement would be possible without change.
“Improvement necessitates change. Even though it appears now that the changes to be made by Trump’s team are likely to be drastic, they could be either positive or negative,” the official said. “What we can do is remain alert and be cautious,” he said.
The purpose of diplomacy is to make friends and ensure that those friends think about Taiwan when making decisions, especially when striking deals with Beijing, the official said.
“That is the direction we are going in a bid to ensure Taiwan’s interests,” the official said, adding that endeavors to improve communications and exchanges with the new US administration will be more beneficial than making wild speculations.
If a survey released by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation late last month is any indication, which found that about 68 percent perceived the Tsai-Trump call on Dec. 2 positively, Taiwanese, like their government, seem to be more sanguine than anxious about Taiwan-US ties under the Trump presidency.
As Trump was sworn into office on Friday, the world will soon be able to examine his actions and see firsthand what kind of leader he really is. By then, Taiwan would find out if its optimism about the Trump administration is on solid ground or is simply unrealistic.
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