ANALYSIS: Taiwan Holds Its Breath as Trump Meets Xi

ANALYSIS: Taiwan Holds Its Breath as Trump Meets Xi
Illustration: Stellina Chen

What you need to know

Ahead of the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and China President Xi Jinping, eight Taiwan and China experts share their expectations with The News Lens.

In a few hours, U.S. President Donald Trump will host China’s President Xi Jinping (習近平) at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

The meeting follows a bumpy start to U.S.-Sino ties under the new president. The incoming Trump administration late last year sent shockwaves through foreign policy community after a phone call on Dec. 2, 2016 between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) and then President-elect Trump. The call, thought to be the first time a president or president-elect of the United States has directly contacted the leader of Taiwan since 1979, marked a break with convention, as China has for decades blocked formal relations between the U.S. and Taiwan.

Days later, Trump, during an interview with Fox News Sunday, signaled the potential for a change in the U.S. position on China.

"I fully understand the 'one-China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one-China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," Trump told Fox.

In a series of tweets following the call with Tsai, Trump said, “Did China ask us if it was okay to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into […] their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so!”

Then in February, Trump and Xi spoke by phone. The White House says that during the call, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one-China’ policy.” Under the policy, the U.S. “acknowledges” Beijing’s position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China.

While Susan Thornton, U.S. acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, yesterday suggested that the U.S. has “moved on” after Trump reaffirmed the longstanding U.S. one-China policy, uncertainty remains as to how Taiwan will be treated at the two-day summit.

Expecting the unexpected

While most Taiwan experts expect something of a benign outcome from the two-day talks, few are ruling out the possibility of President Trump coming up with a few surprises.

Richard Bush, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution, former top U.S. diplomat in Taiwan:

China always raises Taiwan at senior-level meeting with the U.S. The issue is where in the hierarchy of issues the Chinese raise it and with what seriousness. The United States usually responds with a reaffirmation of our commitment to ‘our one-China policy’ and its elements, including peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences. Based on the limited amount of time for this meeting, I would expect that Taiwan will get crowded out by North Korea and economic relations, so the same thing is likely to happen.

At the same time, the decision-making process in the Trump administration is such that I can’t rule out something different happening. Xi Jinping might try to convince Trump that TW’s President Tsai could well lead to a crisis in cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations (that’s not true; her agenda is domestic).

Michal Thim, Fellow of the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs (U.S.) and Research Fellow of the Association for International Affairs (Czech Republic):

Earlier this week, the White House held a briefing on the Xi visit and expected agenda of the meeting. When asked about how Taiwan will be handled, a senior White House official replied that the U.S. adheres to its (i.e. U.S.’s) one-China policy and that this policy is "based on the three joint communiques with China, as well as the Taiwan Relations Act. That is a longstanding policy of the United States. That is a policy that the president has reaffirmed."

This would suggest that the American side will stick to business as usual. However, there is non-zero chance that Trump will get off the script and try to leverage U.S. relations as a bargain for concessions from Xi side. That said, while Chinese would certainly be happy with concessions on Taiwan, it is probable that Trump would ask for trade-off that Beijing would not be willing to offer.

The problem with Trump administration is that we simply do not know. Previous presidents more or less followed the playbook of U.S. ‘one-China’ policy that included strong bilateral relationship with Taiwan – part of U.S. policy on Taiwan is that its status is not settled, i.e. it is not part of China as U.S. understands it. Trump certainly brings element of uncertainty for Taiwan.

Liao (Kitsch) Yen-fan (彥棻), Taipei-based analyst for the Cyber Security firm Team T5, specializing in cyber security, air power, and the Taiwanese military:

The Trump administration's approach to foreign policy thus far has not significantly deviated from the previous administration. He has demonstrated an understanding of the longstanding key U.S. position of acknowledging but not agreeing with China's one-China principle. However, Trump's business practices have always been to aggressively reach for any potential concessions from his opponents without realizing the commitments made. Hence it is possible that Trump could potentially put the one-China principle up as a bargaining chip just short of committing – or perhaps even reneging and have Secretary Rex clarifying the U.S. position afterward - just like the case with the Trump-Tsai call.

Arms sales?

One contentious item likely to be raised at Mar-a-Largo is the continuation of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Reuters reported last month, quoting an unnamed U.S. official, the Trump administration planned to progress a “substantial sale” of weapons to Taiwan. If the matter does come up, experts expect a strong push-back from the Chinese side of the table. The question remains whether an apparent concession from Trump at this stage would really stop the U.S. from progressing a sale.

Michal Thim:

There is speculation the Trump administration plans a major arms sale, including THAAD missile defense and F-35 – though we have no indication that Taiwan made an official request for these specific items. This raises suspicion that the information about planned arms sales was released to 'shock and awe' the Chinese who will surely demand this offer be taken off the table. If that is indeed the case, and we cannot be certain, Taiwan is not really affected if Trump gets a concession from the Chinese for removing an offer that does not even officially exist. The Trump administration would still be expected to proceed with arms sale later this year, just one that would be more modest than the one that is under speculation.

Liao Yen-fan:

The list [of weapons] reported by Japan Times was certainly propped up as a negotiation tactic. While the Taiwan air force desperately wants, and in a few years may need, the F-35, the Ministry of National Defense after consulting with the newly established strategy – which is undergoing its five-week simulation right now – has rejected the deployment of THAAD as necessary. However, there remains the potential for the Trump administration to employ this meeting, combined with key technology transfers of about five items that Taiwan still requires for its indigenous submarine program, as a way to pressure Taiwan into purchasing THAAD and decrease the utility of People's Liberation Army’s ‘Rocket Force’ in a regional power-play.

Bill Sharp, Asia expert, University of Hawaii:

An arms package for Taiwan is talked more and more about in Washington. There is some suggestion that this one might include F-35 fighters or long sought after F-16 Cs and Ds. China will strenuously object to both.

More of the same?

While it is anticipated that China, as is its habit, will push the U.S. to limit arms sales to Taiwan and acknowledge China’s claim to the island-nation, experts are mostly aligned in their thinking that the talks will focus more on North Korea, trade and economic issues rather than the Taiwan question. Still, there is a lingering concern in Taiwan that Trump could use Taiwan as something of a "bargaining chip" to push for improved Sino-U.S. trade relations.

Ross Feingold, a Taipei-based political risk consultant who advises clients on political developments in Asia including cross-Strait relations:

Despite the concerns expressed by some commentators, it’s unlikely that anything will be said at the meeting which will change Taiwan’s strategic position or U.S.-Taiwan relations. At the meeting, and as has transpired at previous leadership meetings, President Xi is likely to express to President Trump the same well-known protestations about U.S.-Taiwan relations, including weapons sales, and emphasize its one-China principle.

Russell Hsiao, Executive Director, of Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C.:

My sense is that the Taiwan issue will be handled carefully by both sides. I do not expect any major surprises. As a senior U.S. administration official pointed out [this week], there will be no "surprising deviation" from what President Trump has already reaffirmed as the U.S. one-China policy, which is based on the Three Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. While the idea of a Fourth Communiqué seems to have been put to bed for now—festering doubts over U.S. commitment to its allies and partners remain. Given the high-profile treatment of Taiwan during the transition, allies and partners will be watching President Trump's approach to the Taiwan issue vis-a-vis the PRC. In this regard, greater uncertainty could be pre-empted if President Trump takes the bold step of issuing assurances for Taiwan according to President Reagan's Six Assurances and other non-papers.

Bill Sharp:

I expect that China will ritualistically emphasize that Taiwan is a core interest. Moreover, as they always do, they will push for a Fourth Communique. The emphasis this time will be on soliciting what in their view would be a more clear Trump Administration position on the one-China policy.

Yang Jianli (楊建利), founder and president of Initiatives for Chin, Citizen Power for China and a former political prisoner of the Chinese government:

The United States will abide by the one-China principle and both sides will agree on not provoking trade war but rather, using dialogue to solve their trade problems. Trump will not deal with human rights.

Where to from here?

Given the consensus that little of substance related to Taiwan is expected to come out of the talks – though noting the unpredictability that has come to define the Trump presidency – the next question is what will be next for the treatment of Taiwan in U.S.-China relations?

Ross Feingold:

After the meeting, notwithstanding the fact that China’s ‘one-China principle’ is not U.S. policy, and regardless of what is actually discussed with regard to Taiwan, China’s state-run media will report a rhetorical victory. In reality, substantive improvement in U.S.-Taiwan relations is likely in areas such as trade and security.

However the Trump-Xi meeting transpires though, one imperative will remain unchanged, which is that a consensus among Taiwan’s domestic stakeholders in government, the legislature, the military and the public on key issues can best safeguard Taiwan’s economic and political security.

Michal Thim:

Apart from worries whether Trump is willing to cut a deal with Xi on Taiwan's expense, what should be expected is that the Chinese will try to set up a trap whereby either Chinese would say something that should be opposed on the grounds of existing U.S. policy on Taiwan and it would not be opposed because American side would be unaware of the nuances, or the Chinese could try to make Trump say something that they would be able to sell as U.S. acquiescence to the PRC’s claim on China.

[The] curious thing about Taiwan and U.S. is that the bilateral relationship is not the exclusive prerogative of the executive branch. U.S. Congress, through the Taiwan Relations Act, prevents the president to make one-sided concessions on Taiwan. That means that whatever deal Trump could try to make, it would not be an irreversible step.

Michael Reilly, a senior fellow of the China Policy Institute at Nottingham University in the UK and former Director of the British office in Taipei:

Xi will need, and expect, to come away from the meeting with a reaffirmation of U.S. support for the one-China policy. The exact form of words Trump uses for that will be less important than China being able to put out a statement confirming it.

Cartoon: Stellina Chen
Editor: Olivia Yang