US, Japan risk China’s ire courting Taiwan ahead of Trump-Xi summit

Two nations trying to upgrade ties with Taipei, moves likely to anger officials in Beijing ahead of presidential summit

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 3:25pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 11:07pm

The US and Japan are taking steps toward upgrading ties with Taiwan, risking a dispute with China as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping prepare for their first meeting in Florida next week.

The two allies have made a series of moves signalling more direct relations with the diplomatically isolated island even after Trump reaffirmed the US’s long-standing policy recognising that both sides were part of “one China”.

In the last week alone, Taiwan has seen its US envoy share a Washington stage with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and hosted a vice minister from Japan, its highest-level official visit in almost half a century.

Such exchanges could weigh on talks if the summit goes ahead between Xi and Trump, who jolted ties in December by taking an unprecedented phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and openly questioned the one-China policy. China considers its sovereignty over Taiwan a “core interest” and is anxious for reassurances that Trump won’t alter US policy, sell the island more arms or establish direct military ties.

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While Trump hasn’t said anything provocative about Taiwan since taking office, tensions between the island and mainland China are running high because Tsai’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party swept the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang from power last year. Tsai, who has angered Beijing by refusing to endorse the one-China framework, has sought to bolster the island’s military and reduce its trade dependence on the mainland.

The Taiwanese president told a banquet hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei last week that she wanted an “upgraded strategic relationship between our two countries”, including deeper security cooperation and defence-industry ties.

The US and Japan, security allies with their own concerns about China’s growing might, have shown a willingness to oblige. The island’s de facto US ambassador Stanley Kao was among the representatives from a 68-member anti-Islamic State coalition invited to the State Department on March 22. Kao posed for a group photo with Tillerson. China was not represented.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday it had lodged a serious protest with Japan after Vice-Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama attended a cultural exchange meeting in Taiwan on March 25. Japan also changed the name of its mission in Taipei to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association in January, which could be seen as implying state-to-state relations.

China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Japan’s recent “provocative actions” regarding Taiwan have already caused grave disturbances to ties. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Akama’s visit represented “non-governmental, practical ties” and wasn’t a break with practice since establishing relations with China in 1972.

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Japan’s move was probably coordinated with Washington, according to June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor. She said Kao’s attendance at the Islamic State summit represented a “real, if tiny, step up in US-Taiwan relations”.

Asked last week about Taiwan’s participation in the Islamic State summit, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US appreciated contributions from coalition members “big or small.” Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s pick for trade representative, told senators overseeing his confirmation last week that he intended to “develop a trade-and-investment policy that promotes a stronger relationship with Taiwan.” 

Arthur Ding, director of National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taipei, said Tsai’s approach to the US was cautious and gradual and that ties would improve regardless of any deals between Trump and Xi.

“Given the ongoing trend of warming relations between Taiwan and the US, I think the possibility is rather low for the Xi-Trump summit to negatively affect it,” Ding said.

Taiwanese foreign ministry spokeswoman Eleanor Wang said in a text message on Tuesday that the island had a solid friendship with the US and expected to be in close contact with Washington before and after any Xi summit. Wang called the visit Japanese vice-minister’s visit a “meaningful” step toward enhancing communications.

The National Defence Authorisation Act signed by President Barack Obama in December gave Trump another way to upgrade Taiwan ties as it would allow exchanges between senior military officials including the “assistant secretary of defence or above”. Trump could also deploy uniformed marines at the yet-to-be completed American Institute in Taiwan complex where plainclothes troops have been stationed since 2005.

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An arms sale to Taiwan could also test relations with mainland China, which delayed a visit by then-defence secretary Robert Gates for almost a year after the US announced a US$6.4 billion deal in 2010. The Washington Free Beacon reported this month that the Trump administration was preparing to provide more and better defensive arms to the island.

Getting Trump to reaffirm past policies on Taiwan would be a priority for Xi in any summit, Huang Jing, a professor of US-China relations at the National University of Singapore, said.

“Xi Jinping is taking a high risk to meet Donald Trump,” Huang added. “If there is anything substantial to be achieved, the No. 1 is Xi Jinping would like Donald Trump to repeat from his own mouth to the public the one-China policy and say what Tillerson said in China that the bilateral relationship should be based on cooperation, not confrontation.”