Donald Trump Thrusts Taiwan Back on the Table, Rattling a Region

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President Richard M. Nixon greeted Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972 during Mr. Nixon’s trip to China. Credit Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Over the past two decades, Taiwan has slipped from its position atop the list of flash points in the complex relationship between the United States and China. In meetings between President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China, it has typically come up after half a dozen more pressing issues, like trade, cyberattacks and Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea.

Now, though, in a single protocol-shattering phone call with the president of Taiwan, President-elect Donald J. Trump has thrust it back on the table. Not since President Richard M. Nixon met with Mao Zedong in 1972 — when the two issued the Shanghai Communiqué clarifying the status of Taiwan — has an American leader so shaken up the diplomatic status quo on the issue.

“Taiwan is about to become a more prominent feature of the overall U.S.-China relationship,” said Jon M. Huntsman, who served as ambassador to China during Mr. Obama’s first term. “As a businessman, Donald Trump is used to looking for leverage in any relationship. A President Trump is likely to see Taiwan as a useful leverage point.”

In the short run, Mr. Trump has rattled the entire region. Representatives of several Asian countries contacted the White House on Saturday to express concern, according to a senior administration official.

In the longer term, officials in the Obama administration worry that the episode could not just ignite tensions across the Taiwan Strait but also inflame trade relations and embolden China in the South China Sea, where it has clashed with the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbors over competing claims to reefs and shoals.

Mr. Trump expressed no misgivings about taking the call from President Tsai Ing-wen, which was arranged beforehand at the initiative of the Taiwanese government, not Mr. Trump’s camp.

Mr. Trump bridled at suggestions that he had committed a faux pas, writing on Twitter on Friday evening that it was “interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”

Nor did Mr. Trump or his aides make a gesture to reaffirm the One China policy, much to the chagrin of the White House. It fell to a spokesman for the National Security Council to affirm that the United States was not changing the policy. Under that policy, the United States formally recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979, abrogating its ties with Taiwan, as the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, sought to bolster China’s economy and create closer ties to the West.

Whether Mr. Trump views the call as the beginning of a change in approach toward Taiwan is not clear. A person close to him insisted that he was just being polite in taking Ms. Tsai’s call. But Stephen Yates, a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney who is advising the Trump transition, said in an interview that people around Mr. Trump were well aware of the nuances of American policy toward Taiwan.

Among hard-line Republicans, there has always been a push to confront China by reaching out to Taiwan. In a statement on Friday, Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who was briefly believed to be a candidate for Mr. Trump’s defense secretary, praised him for taking the call, saying it “reaffirms our commitment to the only democracy on Chinese soil.”

President Ronald Reagan antagonized China by inviting a delegation from Taiwan to his inauguration. Aides to President George W. Bush pressed him to take a more confrontational approach with China until the attacks of Sept. 11 reordered his priorities, increasing the need for him to cultivate China on counterterrorism and other issues.

Tensions over Taiwan peaked under a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who in March 1996 ordered two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait after China conducted missile tests to intimidate the island.

For some China experts, shaking up the cross-strait relationship would not be the worst thing in the world. “We have had a status quo of sorts in the Taiwan Strait that has kept the peace, but it recently has not looked all that durable, nor was it very agreeable to most citizens of democratic Taiwan,” said Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

“Whether a new kind of Trumpian brinkmanship will now cause China to reconsider its hard-line position towards Taiwan, or to respond in a dangerous and militant way, remains to be seen,” he said.

Mr. Trump has spoken harshly about China, accusing it of concocting climate change as a hoax to undercut American manufacturers, branding it a currency manipulator (when it in fact is trying to prop its currency up), and threatening to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. Mr. Trump’s trade advisers have also advocated punitive responses to what they portray as unfair Chinese actions.

A few days after he was elected, however, Mr. Trump spoke with China’s president, Mr. Xi, and released a statement afterward that said the two men had a “clear sense of mutual respect.”

Taiwan is also likely to seek a closer relationship with the United States. After years of a Kuomintang government, which pursued closer China ties, Taiwan elected Ms. Tsai as its second president from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Analysts said that Ms. Tsai, though not a firebrand, was seeking to diversify Taiwan’s economic partners and carve out more space for it in international affairs.

There are also lingering questions about Mr. Trump’s business dealings in Taiwan. The news media there has reported that the Trump Organization sent a representative to Taiwan to explore building a luxury hotel in a government-backed development near Taipei’s airport, though an official with the Trump Organization said it was not planning any expansion into Taiwan.

The Trump Organization does not dispute that one of its employees — assigned to promote hotel sales related to Asia — was in Taipei, the capital, in October for a work-related visit. The duties of the executive, Anne-Marie Donoghue, include trying to find guests for the company’s hotels worldwide, and she is not involved in developing new real estate projects for Trump Hotels.

For the Chinese government, as for many other governments around the world, Mr. Trump’s freewheeling diplomacy poses a challenge. At first, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, played down the episode, saying it was a “petty action by the Taiwan side” that would not upset the longstanding policy of One China.

But hours later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged a formal complaint with the Obama administration. It urged the United States to “handle issues related to Taiwan carefully and properly to avoid causing unnecessary interference to the overall U.S.-China relationship.”

David Shambaugh, the director of the China policy program at George Washington University, said Beijing’s measured response made sense. But he said that if the Trump administration took more concrete steps to change time-tested ways of dealing with Taiwan, “they can expect additional pushback from China.”

Source: The New york Times

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