Trump still has plenty of room to manoeuvre on Taiwan despite one-China pledge, analysts say
The United States can still offer significant support to Taiwan in the form of arms sales and other assurances of assistance, even as US President Donald Trump seeks to mend ties with Beijing by acknowledging the one-China policy, analysts say.
Trump spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, in their first conversation since the American leader was sworn into office in January. Trump told Xi he would continue to honour the one-China policy, which recognises Taiwan as part of China, easing fears the world’s two biggest economies were headed for confrontation.
Yet doubts persist over just how closely the Trump administration will hew to the policy.
“Trump is predictable in his unpredictability. He has avoided the minefield for now, but there’s still a lot of uncertainties,” said William Choong, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. “So the jury is out still on the China-US relationship.”
Bonnie Glaser, an expert on US-China relations at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Trump might more clearly define “one China” in the future.
In the White House statement on the phone call, Trump said he would respect “our one-China policy”.
“The US one-China policy is composed of the Taiwan Relations Act and three US communiqués,” Glaser said.
The Taiwan Relations Act, signed in 1979 after the US government switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, provides the legal basis for the unofficial relationship between the US and Taiwan.
“Trump did not state any specific definition of the one-China policy, so it isn’t clear what he agreed to,” she said. “He certainly will not embrace China’s definition – no US president has ever accepted China’s definition.”
Choong said Trump’s pledge to stand by the policy does not in any way limit his room to manoeuvre under the Taiwan Relations Act.
“It’s completely within the Americans’ rights to sell military hardware to Taiwan,” he said.
Former US president Barack Obama signed into law in late December the 2017 National Defence Authorisation Act, which calls on the Pentagon to conduct senior military exchanges between Taiwan and the US.
Beijing has previously denounced American arms sales to Taiwan. In 2015, it summoned a senior US envoy in Beijing after the US State Department said it intended to sell Taipei two Perry-class frigates, Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles and a range of other military equipment.
The direction of Sino-US ties are also expected to be shaped by Trump’s approach to regional sovereignty disputes in the East and South China seas, observers said.
On the heels of Friday’s call, Trump hailed Japan as “a great ally” during a state visit by Japanese President Shinzo Abe and reaffirmed that the US-Japan Security Treaty covered the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyus in Chinese. Under the treaty, the US will continue to recognise Japan as the rightful claimant and be prepared to defend the islands against invasion.
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong