Taiwan event creates headaches for Trump amid North Korea talks
Chinese officials have made clear they aren't happy about the planned opening of a U.S. office complex in Taipei the same day as the denuclearization summit in Singapore.
This story is being published by the South China Morning Post as part of a content partnership with POLITICO. It was written by Andrew Restuccia and originally appeared on politico.com on May 31, 2018.
As Trump administration officials scramble to pull off a high-stakes meeting with North Korea next month, they’re grappling with another diplomatic challenge in Asia: the opening of a new office building in Taiwan.
Senior White House aides have for months been quietly weighing how to handle the June 12 opening of an office complex in Taipei that serves as a de facto U.S. embassy without enraging the Chinese government.
Chinese officials have repeatedly signaled, both in public comments and in private conversations with Trump administration aides, that any decision by the United States to include high-level officials – or even worse, a Cabinet secretary – in the delegation attending the ceremony would be met with outrage from Beijing.
With less than two weeks to go before the event, the White House has not yet finalized the delegation, according to people familiar with the planning, though it is expected to include at least one senior administration official. At one point last year, these people said, the White House considered sending former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who resigned in September amid a scandal over private jet travel.
The Taiwan question has taken on unexpected urgency amid the efforts to secure China’s help in reaching a landmark denuclearization agreement with North Korea, as well as ongoing and highly sensitive trade negotiations. The June 12 opening of the American Institute in Taiwan compound falls on the same day as the planned summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken an increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan, long viewed by China as an unruly territory that must be unified with the mainland – and Trump, according to one person close to him, has privately raised concerns that his administration could anger China by cultivating even closer ties with the island’s government.
“Though it’s just a building opening, the Chinese are really painting it as a symbol of the administration’s commitment to China-U.S. relations,” said Abigail Grace, a recently departed National Security Council official who now focuses on Asia-Pacific policy at the Center for New American Security. “If I were sitting in the Trump administration’s shoes, there would be a very difficult decision to make.”
A White House spokesman did not comment on the behind-the-scenes discussions about the delegation, but noted that the national security strategy released last year “underscores the administration’s commitment to maintaining our strong ties with Taiwan in line with our One China Policy,” including the 1979 law establishing the terms of U.S. relations with Taiwan. The State Department declined to comment on the status of the Taiwan delegation.
Despite Trump’s apparently warm relationship with Xi, the United States and China have a complicated and tumultuous history. Trump has long threatened China with a trade crackdown, and following a recent effort to strike a grand bargain with Beijing, the White House announced on Tuesday a series of punitive measures, including tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods.
Even before taking office, Trump enraged China by taking a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan, breaking with precedent. The call was the result of an intense lobbying campaign by Taiwan’s allies, including former Republican senator and presidential nominee Bob Dole. Many observers saw the call as an early sign that Trump would take a dramatically different approach to Taiwan.
But so far, Trump’s Taiwan policy has largely echoed the one adopted by previous presidents, with Trump keenly aware of the diplomatic fallout if the United States appears to be developing a more formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan.
In an interview with Reuters last year, Trump suggested he likely wouldn’t talk to Taiwan’s president again, citing his “good personal relationship” with Xi.
“So I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for [Xi],” Trump said. “I think he’s doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first.”
The risks for Trump of alienating China are huge, according to experts.
“The Trump administration has been very clear that it seeks China’s support and cooperation when it comes to North Korea, and China is extremely adept at using U.S. interests in one area as leverage in another area,” said Abraham Denmark, the director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “I could see Beijing saying, ‘How can we help you with North Korea when you’re being so unhelpful on Taiwan?’”
Yet Trump has taken some initial steps seen as advancing the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, including signing legislation in March that encourages U.S. officials to travel to China. The White House also bashed China’s demand that airlines change how they reference Taiwan on their websites, calling it “Orwellian nonsense.”
Despite the uncertainty about Trump’s approach to Taiwan, administration officials have been privately telling outside allies for months that they should expect a more fleshed-out Taiwan policy soon.
The president is surrounded by pro-Taiwan aides, led by national security adviser John Bolton, who like others in the administration have been hawkish both on China and North Korea.
In 2016, Bolton wrote an op-edin The Wall Street Journal calling on the new president to use the threat of closer U.S. relations with Taiwan to pressure China to limit its aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
“If Beijing isn’t willing to back down, America has a diplomatic ladder of escalation that would compel Beijing’s attention,” he wrote at the time, arguing that the next administration could punish China by, among other things, establishing an official diplomatic presence in Taiwan.
Other current and former Trump administration officials who are seen as backing a closer relationship with Taiwan include Matt Pottinger, the top Asia expert on the National Security Council; Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs; and former chief of staff Reince Priebus, who visited Taiwan before joining the White House.
“There is enormous goodwill toward Taiwan from this administration and a genuine belief that because Taiwan is under so much pressure from China that we should be stepping up and doing more,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Under current law, the United States maintains unofficial diplomatic ties to Taipei through the American Institute in Taiwan, which houses State Department staffers and serves as a de facto embassy in the region. The new American Institute in Taiwan complex has been in the works since 2009 and after years of delay is set to be unveiled at the June 12 ceremony.
While previous presidents have sent Cabinet secretaries to Taiwan – Obama’s EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited in 2014 – Xi is putting increased pressure on the United States not to give credibility to the event, which one expert likened to a “renewal of the United States’ vows with the Taiwanese.”
“This should not be a big issue, but China is making it one,” said Richard Bush, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan.
Further complicating the decision to form the delegation is the fact that U.S. officials who visit Taiwan are often no longer welcome in China, which means the administration likely won’t send officials who are crucial to ongoing negotiations with Beijing on trade and other issues.
In addition to members of the Trump administration, members of Congress and former U.S. officials who have cultivated strong ties to Taiwan are expected to attend the event.
Multiple people close to the administration said there is one silver lining to the fact that the opening of the new compound overlaps with the planned North Korea summit: the Cabinet officials whose attendance would most anger Beijing – like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – will likely be in Singapore.
But one thing is certain: the ceremony in Taiwan will pale in comparison to the May opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, which featured Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“The Chinese will conclude if we don’t send a Cabinet secretary that we were intimidated, that we caved,” Glaser said. “Honestly, I don’t think that has anything to do with it. The issue is finding somebody to go.”