By Zhao Minghao
Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen embarked on a nine-day visit on Saturday to Nicaragua, Salvador and Guatemala, with stopovers in the US. While Tsai did not meet with US President-elect Donald Trump or any members of his transition team during her US stay, she met with senior US Republican lawmakers including Ted Cruz.
Over the past month, Trump has made a series of provocations against China. He had a phone call with Tsai and questioned the one-China policy. He also launched an attack on Twitter against China’s monetary and South China Sea policies. Many are concerned that his moves will cast a shadow over the Sino-US relations.
Trump playing the Taiwan card is a show orchestrated for months by Taiwan and US officials, including former senator Bob Dole, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and Stephen Yates, previously an analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
In particular, Yates was a missionary in Taiwan in 1987-89, later became deputy national security adviser to vice president Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2005, and is now Idaho’s GOP chairman. Last month, he again visited Taiwan purportedly in an attempt to enhance US relations with Taiwan.
But senior US experts on Asia affairs didn’t agree with Trump. Soon after Trump’s call with Tsai, Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the president-elect “does not really comprehend how sensitive Beijing is about this issue.”
Evan Medeiros, the Asia director at the White House national security council, warned that “this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative” and will set a foundation of “enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.” Christopher Hill, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs under George W. Bush, called it a “huge mistake.”
But the criticism doesn’t seem to make Trump and his team knuckle under. He will likely continue to stir up troubles concerning Taiwan.
To be specific, he may enhance the level of US-Taiwan exchanges and facilitate more bilateral interactions between military officials. He may also increase the arms sales to Taiwan, as long advocated by John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This is highly likely since Taiwan authorities have agreed to increase its defense spending to 3 percent of the GDP.
Trump is also expected to financially back Taiwan by signing the bilateral investment and trade agreement.
In the meantime, Taiwan will play a bigger role in the US policy on the Asia-Pacific region. Trump’s trade advisor Peter Navarro wrote in November on Foreign Policy that the Obama administration’s treatment of Taiwan is “egregious” and the “beacon of democracy in Asia is perhaps the most militarily vulnerable US partner” in the world. An amendment passed by the House of Representatives directed the US secretary of defense to grant observer status in the US-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise.
It’s worth noting that Trump may link the Taiwan question with the Korean Peninsula. Michael Flynn, who was tapped by Trump as his national security advisor, said that North Korea’s nuclear program will become the Trump administration’s most urgent national security challenge.
In meeting with a group of South Korean lawmakers in early December, an official of Trump’s transition team said China should work hard on North Korea as much as it cares about the cross-Straits issue.
In handling the Ukraine crisis, the Obama administration underestimated how firm Russia could be to defend its own interests and hence the bilateral relations plunged to the lowest ebb. Russian leaders even sent an explicit warning against a new Cold War.
Now Trump and his transition team are severely underestimating the possibility of strong reactions from China, though Beijing has so far exercised restraint, which was even commended by Henry Kissinger.
Beijing surely hopes to keep a stable relationship with Washington, but it won’t allow any bullying from the US over the Taiwan question, which is germane for the Chinese leadership in assessing the intentions of the US policy. Many of Trump’s advisors were pro-Taiwan or have economic links with the island, and he has picked multiple hawks with military background as his aids. This adds to his chances of making missteps and taking risks when it comes to China.
Trump called his strategy unpredictable. As an enormously conceited revisionist, his possible negative impact on the Sino-US relationship may have been considerably underestimated. Thus, drastic conflict between Beijing and Washington is definitely not good news for Asia and the whole world.
(The author is a research fellow with the Charhar Institute in Beijing and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. [email protected])