By Frank Ching
In a few weeks, Tsai Ing-wen will mark her first anniversary as president of Taiwan. However, her celebration is likely to be subdued since she is facing intractable problems with the world’s two most important powers: China, which is an existential threat to her country, and the U.S., the guarantor of its security but whose reliability under Donald Trump is open to question. Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants her to accept what is known as the “1992 Consensus,” under which both Taipei and Beijing accept “One China,” with each free to interpret what that means. So Taiwan can say “China” means the Republic of China, which is Taiwan’s formal name, rather than the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, Beijing has halted cross-straits institutional cooperation. Trump has blown hot and cold, raising expectations by speaking to her on the telephone last December in an unprecedented call during which she congratulated him on winning the November election and he, in turn, congratulated her on her victory earlier in 2016.
But the jubilation in Taiwan was short-lived. On Dec. 11, nine days after that phone call, Trump said on Fox News, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
The implication was that all issues were connected, and Trump could make concessions to China on some areas, such as Taiwan, if China made concessions in other areas. Taiwan, it seemed, was little more than a bargaining chip for Trump, to be traded away for the U.S.’ benefit. This Trump tendency to lump issues together was demonstrated again when China’s president, Xi Jinping, visited the U.S. earlier this month. Subsequently, Trump said in an interview that he had told Xi that if China would deal with the North Korean nuclear issue, then the U.S. would accept its trade deficit with China.
Since then, China and the U.S. have been communicating frequently at high levels, from the president on down. Taiwan must be feeling distinctly uncomfortable, not knowing what the U.S. is promising China in return for cooperation on North Korea, the South China Sea and other issues.