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Will Trump Turn Legislation To Help Taiwan Into Tools To Pressure China?


Two Taiwan-related bills passed the House this week, and if they make it to President Donald Trump’s desk they could become powerful bargaining chips in China negotiations. But how will that impact Taiwan?

The first bill is the Taiwan Travel Act, which is designed to encourage diplomatic visits between U.S. and Taiwan officials at all levels. The bill would pave the way for Taiwanese government officials to visit the U.S. and meet U.S. officials, including those from the Defense Department. U.S. government officials would be able to do the same in Taiwan. It’s a huge deal, because such diplomatic visits from both sides have ceased after Washington and Beijing established a formal diplomatic relationship in 1979.

The second bill would direct the State Department to come up with a strategy to regain observer status for Taiwan in the World Health Organization. This bill is also significant because Taiwan lost its permanent seat and all representation in the United Nations in 1971, after the General Assembly passed a resolution to officially acknowledge the People’s Republic of China (Beijing) as China’s only representative. Since 1993, Taiwan has launched campaigns to regain some status in the U.N apart from Beijing, but has so far failed. This bill would mark a significant and official effort from the U.S. to assist Taiwan.

The question is, will President Trump will sign the bills into law if they pass the Senate?

An editorial in China’s Global Times already warned of the likely risks should Trump choose to sign.

“The era when the US dominated Taiwan-related affairs has ended. If the country finally passes the Taiwan Travel Act, then the act will be the full stop to that era. … If Washington ultimately resorts to rolling out the red carpet for the ‘Taiwan president’ in the White House to show its will against China, it is taking a huge risk. The mainland will surely act to make sure Taiwan and the US pay a price … the Taiwan question is the Chinese mainland’s bottom line that it cannot afford to touch.”

What the Global Times didn’t say is that the Taiwan question is also the bottom line of China’s President Xi. If Trump is the ultimate nationalist in the West, Xi is the ultimate nationalist in the East. His whole political platform is about making China great again, which includes defending national sovereignty at any cost. Xi’s China dream is more than a set of economic targets.

Xi wants to see China achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2050. In Xi’s vision, such “rejuvenation” must include the reunification of Taiwan, a dream that’s been shared by generations of his predecessors since Chairman Mao. As an ambitious old man, some observers believe that Xi probably can’t wait to 2050 to solve the “Taiwan problem.” He may try to unite Taiwan with the mainland during his lifetime as a legacy project.

Deng Yuwen, researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank, recently wrote a provocative piece saying he believes that Beijing has a timetable in mind to unify Taiwan with China, possibly by force in 2020. Deng points out a combination of factors supporting this timetable, including:

  • As one generation of Taiwanese replaces another, the “Chinese” identity among the people will only grow weaker, while the pro-independence movement is gaining more popular support.
  • So far, Beijing has failed to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Taiwanese. Since peaceful means hasn’t yielded the kind of results Beijing wanted, force may be the only option. No Chinese leader, including Xi, ever rules out the possibility of taking Taiwan by force.
  • According to Deng, taking Taiwan by force has the popular support of mainland Chinese.

While Deng’s projection of a military takeover of Taiwan in 2020 seems to me outlandish, I do agree that Xi probably has a timetable in mind to solve the “Taiwan problem.” He has been building a modern Chinese military that is capable of carrying out such a mission. For years, China has poured billions into technology development and military training.

The Trump administration’s national security strategy laid out in December caused alarm in China, because it labeled China a strategic rival of the U.S. No Chinese leader, especially Xi, wants to appear weak in front of such a direct challenge. So Xi is eager to show under his leadership, China will stand up to what he sees as American imperialism.

Not surprisingly, China’s air force demonstrated its capability by flying a bomber around Taiwan last December. The Chinese navy is building its third home-grown aircraft carrier. In his New Year speech to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi stressed the need for real combat training. Right after the New Year, Mainland China’s Civil Aviation Administration opened four new aviation corridors over the Taiwan Strait for commercial use. That decision prompted strong protest from Taiwan, which says Beijing’s is using commercial aviation to cloak its political and even military agenda to change the status quo of the strait.

Should President Trump sign these two Taiwan related bills into law, he needs to be prepared for strong protest and retaliation from China. The hawks in the Chinese government and especially from the Chinese military may push Xi to move up his Taiwan “liberation” timetable.

Most foreign policy experts believe it’s in both the U.S. and Taiwan’s interests to maintain the current status quo and not to provoke Beijing into deploying force. Some argue that President Trump doesn’t actually need to sign these bills into law, but instead use them as a bargaining chip to extract some kind of concessions from Beijing on issues such as trade and North Korea — and that’s the most likely outcome should they make it to his desk.

We should lower our expectations, though, about the number of concessions Beijing might be willing to make. Since Taiwan is such a bottom line issue, as well as an emotional issue for mainland Chinese, Xi will not want to give any impression to his fellow countrymen that he is capitulating to the U.S. demands over Taiwan.

The government of Taiwan also worries about becoming a bargaining chip between two super powers, especially that Trump, who campaigned on a platform of “American First,” may sacrifice Taiwan’s interests in order to win mainland China’s support in dealing with the North Korea threat.

Whatever Trump decides to do, he should remember that Taiwan and Beijing represent two very different political systems, and that people in Taiwan, like people everywhere, have the right to self determination, which doesn’t necessarily mean independence, but it does mean they shouldn’t be forced into any situation they don’t want to be in. Trump should remember these powerful words from his own national security strategy paper,

“There can be no moral equivalency between nations that uphold the rule of law, empower women, and respect individual rights and those that brutalize and suppress their people. … And it is part of our culture, as well as in America’s interest, to help those in need and those trying to build a better future for their families … For much of the world, America’s liberties are inspirational, and the United States will always stand with those who seek freedom.”