Beijing to watch Taiwan’s Tsai closely during US transits
Taiwanese president has vowed to bolster alliances with existing allies but focus is on any interaction with incoming Donald Trump administration
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has vowed to bolster the self-ruled island’s international presence as she heads on a four-nation trip to Central America. The diplomatic mission, with stopovers in the United States, will be closely scrutinised by Beijing for signs of future US policies regarding Taiwan.
An irritated Beijing, which warned Washington against admitting Tsai, is certain to react with stronger pressure against Taipei if Tsai meets with US president-elect Donald Trump or his team, observers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait said.
Tsai began her nine-day visit on Saturday – her second since taking office in May. She was due to arrive in Houston the same day, where she would stop overnight, before heading to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. She is scheduled to return to Taipei on January 14 following a second US stopover, this time in San Francisco.
“I have two important missions on this visit,” Tsai said at a brief conference at Taoyuan International Airport, Taipei, prior to her departure. “One is to cement ties with our allies and increase Taiwan’s global presence.
“The other is to deepen bilateral cooperation programmes with our allies,” she said, adding she would seize the opportunity to have closer interaction not just with the leaders of Taiwan’s allies, but also with leaders of other countries.
The trip is crucial for Taiwan as it struggles to retain its remaining 21 allies despite pressure from Beijing, especially amid rising concern that Nicaragua might soon move its allegiance to the mainland.
Tsai’s trip follows a phone conversation between her and Trump last month, which broke decades-old diplomatic protocol. In a move that further infuriated Beijing, Trump later questioned the validity of the one-China policy if Beijing did not make concessions on trade and other issues.
Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province, warned that Sino-US cooperation would be jeopardised if the one-China policy was not adhered to.
Although a meeting between Trump and Tsai is not expected during her trip, Beijing is closely following every move Tsai makes. It is particularly watching for any interaction between her and the Trump team, to determine whether the future US administration might change its Taiwan policy, observers said.
Wang Min, from the Institute of Taiwan Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said whether Tsai would make any “provocative remarks” during her stay in the United States would present the “bottom line” of both Tsai and Trump.
“Beijing will be able to predict the level of future interaction between Taiwan and the US judging from who Tsai meets – the level of seniority of the aides,” Wang said. “The second sign to watch is what the two sides talk about and what agreements are made between them.
“This is difficult to determine but we will be able to tell from Tsai’s words and actions after her return to Taiwan.”
In the run up to Trump’s inauguration on January 20, both Beijing and officials from the current Barack Obama administration are seeking to ensure the one-China policy will endure. Outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a phone conversation on Thursday that Washington would uphold the policy, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Beijing was worried the Trump administration could abandon the one-China policy and that would embolden Tsai to push for independence.
“They likely fear that private discussions during this transit [of Tsai] could pave the way for such an outcome,” she said.
Glaser also said it would be “unwise” for Tsai to interact with the Trump team during her trip.
“Her administration has many ways to communicate with the incoming US administration,” she said. “The phone call with Trump and his subsequent suggestion that Taiwan could be used as a bargaining chip to extract trade concessions from China has been very damaging to Tsai and she is likely to be very cautious.”
Beijing cut off official communications with Taipei after Tsai was inaugurated in May. It also boosted efforts to curb Taiwan’s participation in international forums and has established diplomatic relations with former Taipei allies.
Such attempts have intensified, with small West African nation Sao Tome and Principe breaking ties with Taipei, and also extended to the military front. The PLA’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed 90 nautical miles south of Taiwan last month in an exercise described by Beijing as routine.
Tang Shao-cheng, a professor from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said Beijing would react strongly if Tsai met with the Trump team.
“Within the year, tensions across the straits might escalate into an all-out confrontation – from verbal warnings to concrete measures taken by Beijing,” Tang said.
“If Tsai is to make any move that upsets Beijing, Beijing might take measures against Taiwan to prove that Trump is wrong,” he said, citing possible efforts by Beijing to resume ties with more of Taiwan’s allies.
Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said a meeting between Tsai and the Trump team was unlikely, and that Tsai had other serious matters to attend to with regard to shoring up Taiwan’s shrinking diplomatic alliances.