Trump must end the provocation and not sign laws on Taiwan

With a defence conference involving the US to be held on island soil for the first time, legislative approval by the White House risks a worrying situation turning dangerous

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 February, 2018, 12:43am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 February, 2018, 12:43am

Strong support for Taiwan among US officials and lawmakers is evident through moves to make relations more formal. Congress is considering legislation that would enable high-level military and administrative visits and plans are being made for a defence conference to be held for the first time on Taiwanese soil.

United States policy towards the island has for years been pragmatic, but under President Donald Trump, the focus has been provocation rather than practicality. Coupled with a more confrontational strategy towards China, the measures may set Beijing and Washington on a collision course that would destabilise the region.

Organisers play down significance of US-Taiwan arms sale forum

The annual US-Taiwan Defence Industry Conference is an opportunity for the sides to discuss arms sales, a sensitive issue for Beijing. Inaugurated in 2002, the talks have been held in the US so as not to impinge on the “one-China” policy, the cornerstone of Sino-US relations. But organisers have been emboldened to plan talks on the island in May after the US Senate foreign relations committee approved the Taiwan travel and security acts, which encourage visits by Taiwanese and US officials. They are to go before the Senate and if approved would be sent to Trump to sign into law.

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While symbolically significant for supporters of Taiwan in the US, the bills offer no benefits for the Taiwanese. Arms deals will be approved no matter where the conference is held and formal visits by officials will only anger Beijing, making retaliatory measures likely. Such trips infringe on sovereignty, a matter that can never be tolerated.

Trump’s congratulatory phone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 is instructive; afterwards, he boasted he could leverage Taiwan to get better deals from the mainland, leading Beijing to freeze top-level communications and prompting him to backtrack and reaffirm support for the one-China policy.

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The consequences for Taiwan were harsher, with Beijing taking a tougher line on its participation in international organisations. In December and January, People’s Liberation Army bombers carried out flights circumnavigating the island and a new northbound civilian flight path along the middle of the Taiwan Strait was unilaterally announced. But the Trump administration is also hardening its position towards China, imposing tariffs and naming the nation, along with Russia, as the main threat to national interests.

The US-Taiwan Business Council, co-organiser of the planned May meeting, has played down its significance and says it is not committed to it as an annual event, but the question remains why hold it at all when it is provocative to Beijing. Positions on both sides will harden further if boundaries are pushed. Trump has to resist signing the bills. Approval can only lead to a worrying situation turning dangerous.