ANALYSIS: After 2 Years, Any Changes in the US-China-Taiwan Relationship?

ANALYSIS: After 2 Years, Any Changes in the US-China-Taiwan Relationship?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What you need to know

In engaging with the US, Tsai Ing-wen has stuck to the same script as previous Taiwanese leaders. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

By Mark Lai

Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) visited Paraguay and Belize, two of the 17 countries that still have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It was her fifth overseas trip in office, all of which have been at the heart of a bid to deal with Taiwan’s diplomatic crisis.

In the two years since Tsai replaced her pro-China predecessor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Taiwan has lost five allies in Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, and El Salvador, lured away by financial incentives from Beijing as part of its stated pledge to force Tsai to accept the “1992 consensus.”

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Credit: Presidential Palace
In December 2016, then-US President-elect Donald Trump took a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen. Did it signify the start of a new era in US-Taiwan relations?

To this end, China has also used hostile language, issued threats, and repeatedly conducted military exercises around the island. Lacking the political and economic chips to play the retaliation game, Tsai has to rely on U.S. support to help maintain her administration’s stance.

Luckily for her, the political winds have been shifting in Washington. The Donald Trump administration is waging a trade war against China, and fear of “the China threat” hasn’t been this popular in decades. It seems that many Americans are ready to embrace the enemy of their enemy, which in this case is Taiwan. Indeed, earlier this year Trump signed into law a bill that encourages high-level communication between the U.S. and Taiwan. Named the Taiwan Travel Act, it is a follow-up of sorts to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Both acts ambiguously and loosely imply a U.S. guarantee of maintaining Taiwan’s political status and military ability to maintain its national security.

Is there a structural change to the U.S.-China-Taiwan trilateral relationship in the making? Specifically, is Taiwan making a significant move closer toward Washington with even closer political ties? Let’s examine three key takeaways from Tsai’s five state visits.

Nothing unusual here

Tsai has not used her trips to rewrite the rulebook for Taiwanese presidential state visits, and she has not overtly used them to counterbalance China’s diplomatic campaign to shrink Taiwan’s international stature. Taiwan’s presidents generally make state visits twice a year, except around election time, and the frequency and destinations of Tsai’s visits have also been by the book.

Ma, during his 12 state visits, stopped in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Houston and Guam, among others. Tsai has not tried to use her routine trips to allies as a means of expanding Taiwan’s international presence. For her visit to eSwatini in southern Africa, she flew non-stop all the way from Taiwan. However, Ma, in his visits to Africa, made stopovers in Mumbai and Frankfurt. In other words, Tsai has seemingly demonstrated restraint in an apparent attempt to not escalate the diplomatic battle with Beijing.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (L) and New York University President John Sexton (R) during a 2013 visit to the school, which Ma attended.

No special treatment

Second, the U.S. has not sought to enhance its diplomatic relations with Taiwan – or to signal enhanced diplomatic relations with Taiwan – by giving Tsai special treatment compared with her predecessors while on American soil. For example, among the political activities Tsai engaged in while in the U.S., she met with the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – a routine event. She called and met with local and national politicians including the governor of New Mexico, mayors, congressmen and senators, with Capitol Hill heavyweights among them. This was also routine for previous presidents, with former U.S. President Bill Clinton meeting President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and phoning President Ma several times.

Tsai has visited federal government facilities (the Reagan Library and NASA space center), corporate headquarters, and given public talks. Again, her predecessors have done this as well.

The Presidential Office spokesman announced that three “breakthroughs” had been made on the latest trip: the U.S. had lifted restrictions on Taiwan’s press throughout Tsai’s stay, Tsai had been allowed to visit Taiwan’s official representative office in the U.S., and Tsai had been permitted to visit the Reagan Presidential Library – part of a federal government body (the National Archives and Records Administration).

In reality, however, these were far from breakthroughs. As a matter of fact, the U.S. had never actively enforced restrictions on Taiwanese media, the office is considered “official” only by Taiwan, and multiple previous Taiwanese presidents had visited that same library. Pointing to such “breakthroughs” and arguing that the U.S. is playing the Taiwan card would be an exaggeration, at least at this stage.

Money talks

Although Tsai’s trips have not themselves indicated an escalation of cross-strait hostility nor a firming of the U.S.-Taiwan coalition against China, the pressure on Tsai to deter Chinese advances and further consolidate her domestic support have clearly increased during her time in office.

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Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
Tsai Ing-wen (R) meets with US Senator Marco Rubio (L) in June 2016.

The sum of all Taiwanese allies’ GDP is equivalent to only around a quarter of Taiwan’s own economy; there is no argument that they do not highly value the financial help they receive from Taipei. In her first and second U.S. stopovers, Tsai stressed the concept of steadfast diplomacy, which entails giving up on the one-way foreign aid Taiwan has traditionally provided to its allies. But later, as the pressure from Beijing began to increase, she stopped talking about the new idea of mutually beneficial ties and instead began to promise more concrete aid.

Tsai needs the support of the U.S. In her remarks during the first and second trips, she only briefly mentioned her “joyful short stay” in the U.S. By contrast, during her fourth visit, she expressed sincere appreciation to the Americans for her transit stops in Hawaii and Guam. During her most recent trip, Tsai made special note of her talks with “old and new American friends” in Houston and Los Angeles. Previously, during her 2017 Pacific trip, she mentioned Taiwan’s plan to increase military spending, telling AIT Chairman James F. Moriarty that the government was eyeing a 2 to 3 percent spending increase in the coming years and was ready to allocate a special budget for a necessary weapon purchase. In 2018, when meeting Senator Cory Gardner in Los Angeles, Tsai again promised Taiwan would move forward with the weapons deal to please her friends in Congress.

So, all things considered, the basic structure of the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship remains as it was at the beginning of Tsai’s term. The U.S. still enjoys playing the mediator and China is still anxious over the Taiwan issue. Taiwan is under pressure to ratchet up the support it receives from the U.S. but knows well that such efforts will bring yet more pressure from Beijing. Tsai is invariably steady-handed in dealing with cross-strait relations. Indeed, remaining calm and carrying on in her duties is likely her only choice.

Mark Wenyi Lai is an Associate Professor, Department of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. He has published articles focusing on cross-Strait relations, American foreign policy and international political economy.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
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The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Program.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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