Is Washington preparing to play the Taiwan card with Beijing again?
The lower house of the US Congress has passed two pro-Taipei pieces of legislation but there are still a few ways the Sino-US diplomatic game can go, analysts say
US President Donald Trump may be preparing to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in Sino-US ties with the passage of two pro-Taipei pieces of legislation through the US House of Representatives, Chinese analysts said.
The bills still need US Senate and presidential endorsement to become law but the development is sure to roil Beijing – just as Trump’s unprecedented phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his assessment that the “one China” policy was negotiable ruffled feathers in the Chinese capital just over a year ago.
If passed, the administration would determine how the legislation would be implemented, giving Trump and his team room to strike a bargain with China, analysts said.
One bill, the Taiwan Travel Act, is designed to improve official exchanges between Washington and Taipei.
It would allow US government officials to travel to Taiwan and meet their counterparts. The bill would also pave the way for high-level Taiwanese officials to visit the United States and meet US officials, including those from the state and defence departments.
Such meetings have been avoided since Washington shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
The other piece of legislation aims to help Taiwan regain observer status at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation.
The two bills signal that Taiwan is still a sticking point between Beijing and Washington, even though Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would abide by the one-China policy. The policy is an understanding that there is one China but that Beijing and Taipei can have their own interpretation of what that is.
The passage of the bills follows Trump’s decision last month to sign the National Defence Authorisation Act, part of which allows the US military to have more exchanges with Taiwan, including warship port calls.
The presidential endorsement triggered a strong response from Beijing, with Li Kexin, from the Chinese embassy in Washington, saying that such a port call could invoke China’s Anti-Secession Law.
“The moment a US warship called on Kaohsiung port [on Taiwan] would be the time the People’s Liberation Army took Taiwan by force,” Li said.
Chinese analysts said Trump would weigh the political risk of endorsing the two bills and could use them to bargain with Beijing.
Zhang Yuquan, from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said Trump had various options.
“He might not sign it, or if he signed it, he might not implement it, or he might only send or take very low-level officials. These could become chips to trade with China,” Zhang said.
“Nobody should doubt Xi’s strong determination for reunification. So I think Trump would also just make a deal with the bargaining chip.”
Jia Qingguo, head of international relations at Peking University, said the US president liked to leave some uncertainty about his policies.
“He likes to be unpredictable, but he will also deal cautiously because China would retaliate strongly if there was really a high-level US-Taiwan meeting. It would seriously affect the national interests of the US,” Jia said. “The worst possible consequence could be a break in the diplomatic relationship between Beijing and Washington ... But I don’t think it would go that far.”
When the Taiwan Travel Act was passed by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs in October, China expressed its “resolute opposition” to the proposed legislation.
“China urges the United States to abide by the one-China policy and the principle of the three joint communiqués … not to carry out any official exchanges or contact with Taiwan and not to send any wrong message to Taiwanese separatists,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at the time.