20 February 2019
US President Donald Trump says the last thing he wants is to cause unnecessary trouble for Chinese President Xi Jinping when it comes to the Taiwan issue. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump says the last thing he wants is to cause unnecessary trouble for Chinese President Xi Jinping when it comes to the Taiwan issue. Photo: Reuters

Why Taiwan is just an expendable pawn to Trump

It has been almost a year since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office. And under her rule, cross-strait relations have hit rock-bottom, not least because of her evasive and equivocal stance on the “1992 consensus”, under which both Beijing and Taipei agree that there is only one China.

Tsai did pull off an unprecedented diplomatic breakthrough on Dec. 2, 2016, by ringing up US President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his election victory, the first ever direct conversation between leaders in Washington and Taipei since the US broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979.

In fact, Tsai was so smug about her diplomatic “masterstroke” that at one point she thought she could outsmart both Trump and President Xi Jinping and play Washington off against Beijing in order to fish in troubled waters and put an end to Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.

As it turned out, Tsai proved far too optimistic, and things between Washington and Taipei apparently didn’t play out the way she wanted.

Trump is a ruthless businessman, and like basically all of his predecessors, the only thing he is concerned about when it comes to foreign policy is how to protect and maximize America’s national interests.

And Tsai must have either been completely unfamiliar with the take-no-prisoner character of Trump or have overestimated her own bargaining power, hence her miscalculation about the course of development in US-Taiwan relations.

Two recent events illustrate Tsai’s ignorance about how to properly handle relations with Washington.

First, on April 27, Tsai gave an interview to the Reuters, during which she was asked by the reporter as to whether she was going to speak with President Trump over the phone again.

Tsai responded that she was looking forward to having more frequent and direct communication with the US government on fundamental issues, and therefore she would be more than happy to have a conversation with Trump again.

However, just half an hour after Tsai’s interview, halfway across the world in Washington, Trump also gave a scheduled interview to Reuters at the White House.

When he was told by the reporter that president Tsai in Taiwan was very much looking forward to speaking with him again, Trump replied in no uncertain terms that the last thing he wants to do is to cause unnecessary trouble for Xi Jinping and jeopardize the ongoing partnership between the US and China in dealing with the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Trump’s reply in fact amounted to a slap in the face of Tsai, because what he was saying was that Taiwan is absolutely nothing compared to US-China relations, and that he would never risk angering Beijing just for the sake of Taiwan.

Second, last week, Terry Gou, founder and chairman of Foxconn Technology Group of Taiwan, was invited to the White House twice, and on one occasion, was granted an audience with Trump.

According to Taiwanese media reports, Gou was invited to meet Trump to solely discuss his company’s investment project in the US.

However, many political analysts believe they might have talked about something else as well, because after all, Gou is no ordinary businessman: he is widely tipped as a potential front-runner in the 2020 Taiwan presidential election.

When asked by reporters why Tsai and Gou were treated so differently by the White House, Chiu Yi, the Kuomintang lawmaker who is well known for his witty comebacks and cutting remarks, hit the nail on the head: In the eyes of Trump, Chiu said, Terry Gou is a useful and valuable asset because he can help create jobs in the US, whereas Tsai is nothing more than a trouble-maker, hence their strikingly different treatment.

As far as Taiwan is concerned, the two events perhaps indicated a harsh reality to which President Tsai and the Taiwanese people have to resign themselves: in the great power game between the US and China, Taiwan is just an expendable pawn which has no say in its own fate.

As Taiwan has always been regarded by Beijing as being at the core of its national interests, Chinese leaders will go to any lengths to safeguard those interests.

Given China’s rise to global prominence, there is no doubt that Washington will be increasingly looking to Beijing for co-operation and partnership on critical issues in the days ahead.

As such, one can expect that Trump will be eager to do anything to secure Beijing’s partnership in order to serve his own diplomatic purposes, and those things include sacrificing Taiwan’s interests.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 5

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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