Is it too risky for Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai to meet?

The US president-elect leaves open the possibility of meeting Tsai Ing-wen after he is sworn in

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 12:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 9:18am

Incoming US President Donald Trump has left open the possibility of meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen after he takes office, but analysts from across the straits believe Tsai is unlikely to take the risk.

At a New Year’s Eve celebration at his Mar-a-lago estate on Saturday, Trump said: “It would be a little bit inappropriate, from a protocol standpoint, but we’ll see,” when pressed on whether he would meet Tsai in the future.

Analysts believe Tsai is unlikely to take the risk of meeting Trump in public – though this would not prevent her delegation from having contacts with Trump’s team.

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The talk of Tsai’s US stopovers has already rattled Sino-US relations, and Beijing might take tough measures, including military threats, over a face-to-face meeting between her and Trump.

“The instance of [former Taiwanese president] Lee Teng-hui’s 1995 US visit shows how such contacts would mean big disaster and trouble for Taiwan,” Chen ­Xiancai, deputy director of ­Xiamen University’s Taiwan ­research institute, said.

Lee’s high-profile 1995 US visit led to the mainland staging a ­series of missile tests on Taiwan’s doorstep. It also forced then US president Bill Clinton to publicly state in a fence-mending visit to Beijing that the United States did not support independence for Taiwan or its membership in any international bodies, thereby squeezing Taiwan’s global space further.

Chen said that with the mainland’s rise, Beijing was expected to get even tougher in terms of pressuring Taiwan.

“By trying to build stronger ties with Washington, Tsai must evaluate if Taiwan is strong enough to resist the mainland pressure – which the United States could ­only watch but do nothing about,” Chen said.

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Tsai is scheduled to visit four of Taiwan’s allies in Central America beginning this week. She will

stopover in Houston, Texas on Saturday on her way to Honduras, and in San Francisco on January 13 on her way back to Taiwan.

Tsai has said she would not meet members of Trump’s team during her US stopovers. Citing protocol, Trump has said he would not meet any foreign leaders while US President Barack ­Obama was still in office.

Analysts, however, believe there will be contacts between the two sides in private during Tsai’s stopover. They say that given Trump’s unpredictability, it is understandable that Tsai would want to find clues of the possible direction his policies.

“No one knows for sure what sorts of cross-strait policies Trump will adopt after he ­assumes offices [on January 20], and this explains why the Tsai government would want to find clues to prepare for the uncertainties,” Wang Kung-yi, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei, said.

“There is actually no need for Tsai to meet Trump personally, as her government must have its channels to deal with Trump’s team,” Wang said.

In November, Trump upset Beijing by accepting a congratulatory telephone call from Tsai shortly after his election victory. The act broke more than three decades of the protocol Washington had been following since it switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979.

Days later, Trump further irked Beijing by questioning whether Washington should be bound by the one-China policy.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that will be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary, and warns ­other countries about forging ties with the island and allowing Taiwan’s top leader to visit.

Beijing recently also stepped up air and sea drills near the ­island, and succeeded in making one of Taiwan’s allies – Sao Tome and Principe – agree to resume ties with Beijing.

Tsai has refused to endorse the 1992 consensus, which Beijing sees as a prerequisite for further cross-strait interactions.

The 1992 consensus is an ­understanding between Beijing and Taipei that there is only one China, but that each side is free to interpret what “China” stands for.