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  • Taiwan in Trump's Perspective:A Bargaining Chip?
  • Ming Lee (bio)

Many countries in Asia have experienced significant political transitions in the last couple of years. In Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide victory for the Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan's independence-leaning party, in the January 2016 presidential election. In her inauguration speech, Tsai "vowed to preserve the status quo in relations with China, adding Beijing must respect Taiwan's democracy and both sides must ensure there are no provocations."1 However, the status quo has in fact undergone a sea change since Tsai was sworn in as president—cross-strait relations have sharply cooled with the cessation of official communication channels.

Besieged by Taiwan's diplomatic isolation and domestically fierce partisan struggles, particularly over intense relations with China, Tsai's administration, even more than its predecessors, needs satisfactory relations with the United States for Taiwan's economic prosperity and national security. While the United States does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it maintains commitments to the island based on the Taiwan Relations Act passed in April 1979. This essay will examine the early contacts between the Tsai government and the Trump administration, the Tsai government's broader policy goals, and the role of the China factor in U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Relations between the Trump Administration and Taiwan

The United States witnessed an epochal political transition with the election of Donald Trump as president in November 2016. Trump campaigned on a foreign policy that prioritized the interests of the American people and national security above all else. His foreign policy ideas were clear—revive U.S. competitiveness and security, while requiring a reasonable amount of burden-sharing from U.S. allies to "make America great again."

Tsai called Trump on December 2, 2016, to congratulate him on winning the presidency, and Trump responded by congratulating Tsai on her electoral victory earlier in the year. They talked for over ten minutes and [End Page 26] discussed economic and security issues. Their conversation alarmed some observers in the United States and especially China because of the policy signals it sent to China. A phone call between the leader of Taiwan and a U.S. president-elect was unprecedented, given that Washington switched its diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Against this backdrop of suspicion and criticism, Trump retorted, "Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call."2 In an interview ahead of his inauguration, Trump further heightened the sense of uncertainty when he stated that "everything is under negotiation including One China."3 Beijing's resentment coincided with an earlier expression of concern regarding the annual U.S. defense policy bill, which included a plan to conduct high-level military exchanges with Taiwan.4 Tsai also congratulated Trump upon his inauguration over Twitter. According to her office, she vowed to deepen the bilateral ties between the two countries, since "Taiwan is the most important international ally of the United States based on the shared values of freedom, democracy and human rights."5

Initially, what Taiwan wanted was to secure a solid communication channel with the incoming president. While acknowledging that the call did not signal any major policy shift by Washington in terms of the Sino-U.S.-Taiwan triangle, Taiwan's officials still thought the conversation with Trump could give the Tsai administration more room to maneuver in improving substantive ties with Washington.6 Many, however, have noted that the call further strained relations between Taipei and Beijing. It also could have proved costly for Tsai by prompting Chinese pushback against both Taiwan and the United States. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Geng Shuang said that Beijing had urged Washington to honor its commitment to the one-China policy. When stopping in Texas [End Page 27] en route to Central America in early January, Tsai kept the visit low-key and did not meet with then president-elect Trump or members of his team.

Policy Goals of the Tsai Administration

Taiwan has only unofficial relations with the United States. The initial U.S.-Taiwan (Republic of China) Mutual Defense...


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