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Why was the Taiwanese president in Hawaii?

Nicole Ng
March 28, 2019

Despite Chinese protest, Hawaii remained on the itinerary for Tsai Ing-wen”s tour of the Pacific. Experts say the leader’s trip is part of Taiwan’s "defensive" strategy, and aims to counter growing pressure from Beijing.

Taiwan Präsidentin Tsai Ing Wen auf Hawaii
Image: imago/Kyodo News

During a visit to the US Pacific island state of Hawaii on Wednesday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed her country had made a request to buy new US military equipment. The leader claimed the M-1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets would be for "self defense" and "deterrence."

The announcement was sharply criticized in Beijing, where China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang urged the US stop arms sales to Taiwan, or risk "serious damage" to US-China relations.

Read more: Taiwan prepares to hold large-scale military drills to deter China

It’s not the first time this has happened. Last year, Taiwan bought some $330 million in military aircraft parts from the US. Although Washington and Taipei severed diplomatic ties 40 years ago, the two remain allies.

Tsai made the comments during a stopover in Hawaii, which concluded a week-long visit to three of Taiwan’s 17 remaining allies - Palau, Nauru and the Marshall Islands.

190327 Infografik Karte Pazifik EN

Her tour came amid increased tensions in the cross-strait relationship. After coming into power in 2016, Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) refused to state explicitly that Taiwan was part of China - one of the Chinese government’s demands.

Earlier this year, Beijing ramped up its rhetoric, calling for "peaceful reunification" with Taiwan, but also saying it would use "all necessary means" to achieve this.

While China has never ruled out taking Taiwan by force, the comments, coupled with the heightened military presence in the strait, have sent Taipei in search of more support.

Taiwan FM: 'We haven't accepted the 1992 consensus'

Power in the Pacific

Bonnie Glaser, Director of the China Power Project at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told DW that Taiwan was facing heightened “military intimidation”. But, despite the “fighters and bombers circumnavigating Taiwan,” the country was still trying to carve out a sphere of influence in the region.

"I think the top priority this tour was to shore up Taiwan's relations with its allies in the south Pacific," Glaser said.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is greeted by supporters in Hawaii
President Tsai Ing-wen stopped over in Honolulu on her way back to TaiwanImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Since 2016, five countries have pulled support from Taiwan in favor of Beijing's "One China" policy, which claims the island is part of its territory. Glaser explained that Taipei was worried another Pacific ally, the Solomon Islands, could drop diplomatic support following elections next week.

"The Chinese have been poaching many of Taiwan's allies," the analyst told DW. "I think there are several that are vulnerable to switching sides."

"There is particular concern… that if the Solomons flip, some of these other countries in the Pacific might be vulnerable," she said. "Tsai Ing Wen is really trying to hold the line."

The Taiwanese leader didn't pay a visit to the Solomon Islands during her tour, but sent her deputy Foreign Minister there earlier this month.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing Wen delivers a speech in Honolulu, Hawaii
Both Tsai Ing-.wen and her predecessor have been granted transits in the USImage: imago/Kyodo News

"Stopover" diplomacy

Tsai's presence in Honolulu has symbolic significance because Taiwanese leaders are not able to meet higher-level US politicians due to the unofficial nature of their visits. But there are sometimes "private dimensions" to these stopovers, Glaser said.

"I think there's an opportunity for her to have a phone call with high-level officials, and they're usually not made public," she told DW. She added that it could also be possible for Tsai to have clandestine meetings with officials at the US Indo-Pacific command.

Taiwanese leaders have been granted more freedom from Washington while on US stopovers in recent years, according to Richard Bush, a senior fellow at Brooking Institute's East Asia center,

"It's an expression of friendship, but I think there's also belief that if you do it gradually, it's less provocative," he said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has accused Washington of undermining the "One China" policy by allowing Tsai to visit. A spokesman last week said Beijing firmly opposed the arrangement of such "stopovers."

Read more: Can Taiwan counter China's mounting pressure?

US balancing act

"The State Department wants to improve the conduct of relations [with Taiwan] but to do so within the parameters of past policy and also maintain a certain balance with its relationship with China," Bush told DW.

This requires a diplomatic balancing act in Washington, as China continues to put military and social pressure on Taiwan.

Read more: US upsets China with new de facto embassy in Taiwan

"The growing threat that China is posing towards Taiwan is not just a military threat. It is interference in Taiwan's politics and society. It is economic carrots and sticks, sowing divisions within Taiwan, including cyber intrusions and manipulation of social media," said Glaser.

The analyst also said that US President Donald Trump would not use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in dealing with China.

"Very early in his tenure, he did say that he might not reaffirm the One China policy. But he learned very quickly the risk of not doing that," said Glaser.

Read more: Taiwan, China share common heritage, checkered history

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