Taiwan hopes for a Trump effect | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 15.12.2016
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Taiwan hopes for a Trump effect

President-elect Trump has said that the "one-China" policy could be leveraged to get a better "deal" from China. Should Taiwan expect Beijing's wrath or just a shaken status-quo? Klaus Bardenhagen reports from Taipei.

Trump's remarks last Sunday that questioned the US' long-standing "one-China" policy received a mixed response in Taiwan. Under the policy, the US recognizes that there is only one China, including Taiwan, and the government in Beijing is its true representative.

Any country that wants to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic must recognize the one-China policy and relinquish official ties with Taiwan. The US has complied with these demands for the past 37 years. 

Trump's remarks were preceded a week earlier by his  unprecedented phone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen. Many in Taiwan welcomed the phone call believing that it would bring more recognition for the territory as an independent political entity.

Trump's latest comments, however, have so far elicited no official reaction from Taipei. But Taiwanese officials appear to be uncertain as to how to interpret the president-elect's statements and worry about potential blowback from Beijing. 

Stable relations with both mainland China and the US are  indispensable for Taiwan, but the satisfaction of being perceived as an ally by the future US government is overwhelming, said a source close to Taiwan's presidency.

Although the authorities in Taipei had expected a sharp reaction from Beijing, they didn't see the latest comments from Trump coming, the source added, pointing to the future US president's unpredictable nature.

But Hsu Hsiang-tao, an expert on Chinese politics at Taiwan's Tunghai University, advised caution. "The telephone call strengthened the self-confidence of the Taiwanese people and their trust in the US," Hsu told DW. "But it has also bolstered forces in China who are more aggressive against Taiwan."

Small steps instead of an abrupt change

Taiwan needs to maintain stable relations with both the US and China. This is also true under Tsai, a fierce critic of Beijing. This remains the case even if Beijing poses the single biggest military threat to Taiwan.

"Peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are in the interest of all stakeholders, including the international community," according to Taiwan's official body in charge of mainland China affairs.

It remains to be seen if Trump will carry through on his words once in office and reconfigure US policy towards China. But the prospect of such a policy change, and its potential ramifications, has preoccupied foreign policy establishments across the world, including in Taiwan.

"Of course Taiwan wants Trump to change America's China policy," said Hsu. "But this would involve many small steps. A large and sudden change will not be possible."

Taiwan's wish list could include more visits from high-ranking US politicians, increased military cooperation, participation in US maneuvers with other Asian countries and above all, a free trade agreement. 

Now that Trump has declared the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to be dead in the water, Taiwan sees the opportunity for bilateral arrangements. President Tsai emphasized this after a meeting with Matthew J. Matthews, the US ambassador for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Kombobild Trump und Tsai Ing-wen

Taiwan needs to maintain stable relations with both the US and China

Will Trump betray Taiwan?

Trump's remarks that recognizing a one-China policy only made sense if the US could make a deal in return, caused a lot of concern in Taiwan. Even before this, critics were speculating that Trump had no interest in Taiwan as a partner and, like a shrewd businessman, was only using Taiwan as leverage for negotiating with China and would eventually drop his obligations.

According to Canadian journalist and Taiwan researcher J. Michael Cole, Trump isn't doing anything to allay these fears. "This fear of eventually being deserted by allies has existed for a long time in Taiwan," Cole told DW.

Since official relations with the US were broken in 1979, Taiwan has conducted a successful balancing act in the diplomatic triangle between the US and China. It continues to assert its independence, has transformed into a democracy and remains under US military protection. But this fragile status quo was never static and many consider the Tsai call as having jeopardized its stability.

Since the turn of the century, China has been applying its growing geopolitical weight to slowly put more pressure on Taiwan. This includes increasing economic linkages, along with espionage and a consistent military buildup.    

China's limited leverage

China Donald Trump auf Titelseite einer Zeitschrift

Beijing slams Trump for questioning longtime 'one-China' policy

What can China do now in order to increase pressure on Taiwan? China's options are actually limited, even though China is Taiwan's largest trading partner. Shortly after President Tsai took office, China tried to apply its leverage on the Taiwanese economy by limiting the number of Chinese tourists travelling to Taiwan. But its aim of disrupting Taiwan's tourism sector was only partially effective. More Japanese and Korean tourists made up the difference and in 2016, Taiwan recorded a new record number of visitors.  Many Taiwanese factories have also relocated their factories from China to Vietnam in recent years.

But China has many options for squeezing Taiwan. It is possible that China could lure away some of Taiwan's remaining 22 diplomatic allies, which Taiwan has been expecting for a long time. The Vatican, Taiwan's last remaining - and very symbolic - European diplomatic ally is about to reach an agreement with China and could change sides soon.

After Trump's conversation with Tsai, Chinese bombers circled Taiwan several times in a threatening display while remaining in international airspace. Chinese authorities are also making life especially difficult for Taiwanese businesspeople who show support for Tsai and own factories in China.

According to Taiwanese government insiders, even under the status-quo, the Taiwanese political scope in international space will continue to shrink. Tsai's Trump offensive was opportunistic and has gained more resonance than expected. Regardless if something good comes out of this initiative to get closer to the US, Taiwan's position continues depend on outside forces.