Taiwan Is Both Exhilarated and Unnerved by Trump’s China Remarks

17-Dec-2016 Intellasia | NY Times | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Lin Fei-fan led the charge nearly three years ago when hundreds of students occupied Taiwan’s legislature to protest a trade deal with China. With the island’s economy increasingly tied to the mainland’s, and Beijing’s global influence on the rise, he worried that Taiwan’s independence was at stake – and might be a lost cause.

Now, thanks to a couple of sentences uttered by Donald J. Trump on a talk show, Lin has new hope.

The president-elect stunned the world on Sunday by suggesting he might abandon the One China principle, the bedrock understanding under which the United States established relations with Beijing and cut official ties with Taiwan nearly four decades ago. His apparent willingness to rethink longstanding American policy that prioritises China over Taiwan has energised Lin, 28, and many like him. But it has also left them anxious, and asking:

What does it mean for one’s homeland to be put on the table by Trump, an inveterate deal maker, in negotiations with China’s Communist leaders, who are not known for making concessions easily?

“Many people in Taiwan worry that once Trump takes office, he’ll make a U-turn,” Lin said. “We are suspicious of his motivations.”

Lin Fei-fan led the charge nearly three years ago when hundreds of students occupied Taiwan’s legislature to protest a trade deal with China. With the island’s economy increasingly tied to the mainland’s, and Beijing’s global influence on the rise, he worried that Taiwan’s independence was at stake – and might be a lost cause.

Now, thanks to a couple of sentences uttered by Donald J. Trump on a talk show, Lin has new hope.

The president-elect stunned the world on Sunday by suggesting he might abandon the One China principle, the bedrock understanding under which the United States established relations with Beijing and cut official ties with Taiwan nearly four decades ago. His apparent willingness to rethink longstanding American policy that prioritises China over Taiwan has energised Lin, 28, and many like him. But it has also left them anxious, and asking:

What does it mean for one’s homeland to be put on the table by Trump, an inveterate deal maker, in negotiations with China’s Communist leaders, who are not known for making concessions easily?

“Many people in Taiwan worry that once Trump takes office, he’ll make a U-turn,” Lin said. “We are suspicious of his motivations.”

Many have applauded Trump’s stand, describing his decision to break protocol and speak by phone with Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s leader, as an overdue gesture toward one of Washington’s most reliable friends in Asia and a young democracy. Taiwan is the United States’ ninth-largest trading partner and has purchased more than $46 billion in American weapons since 1990.

But residents are also coming to grips with the reality that their most vocal champion on the world stage now is a businessperson known for his love of cutting deals and his erratic approach to policy making.

“He’s an uncontrollable force,” said Hsu Tse-mei, 57, a retired bank manager in Taipei. “We’re caught between two powerful countries, China and the United States, and we’re at the mercy of Trump.”

The stakes are high and help explain why Trump’s predecessors have generally left the One China policy untouched.

Since the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the Communist Revolution, generations of Chinese leaders have vowed to reunify the island with the mainland and threatened war to prevent it from formally declaring independence. In the mid-1990s, China fired missiles into waters off Taiwan in an attempt to intimidate supporters of a formal separation.

When the United States established relations with China in 1979, dropping its official recognition of the Nationalist, or Kuomintang, government in Taiwan, it secured a pledge from Beijing that its “fundamental policy” was to pursue reunification by peaceful means.

Many in Taiwan are now afraid that China could reconsider that commitment if Trump scraps the One China policy.

“I’m worried that China may take military action against Taiwan,” said Li Meng-chieh, 33, a graphic designer in Taipei. “If that happens, it will derail our current way of life.”

Such worries extend even to supporters of President Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party has long favoured greater independence from the mainland and has traditionally been willing to accept greater risks to pursue it.

Tsai’s administration has repeatedly assured China of its desire to maintain the status quo, and Lo Chih-cheng, a lawmaker from her party, said officials in Taiwan had avoided playing up the phone call with Trump so as not to antagonise Beijing.

“We have tried to behave ourselves,” Lo said. “But obviously China was not happy about it, so they chose Taiwan to blame. They used Taiwan as a scapegoat to divert their domestic discontent.”

Jason Hu, a vice chair of the opposition Nationalist Party, said initial excitement over the phone call had become regret. “It’s a big power play that Taiwan should not be involved in,” he said.

Taiwanese society is deeply divided on the issue of closer relations with the mainland. Some see the island’s prosperity as inextricably linked to China, while others are worried that Taiwan is already too dependent on the Chinese economy and thus vulnerable to pressure from Beijing. But few in Taiwan are interested in reunification under China’s authoritarian political system.

The Chinese leadership is worried Trump will make its goal of reunification even more difficult to achieve and embolden those in Taiwan who want to pursue greater international recognition and a more formal break with the mainland.

The government in Beijing has ratcheted up its criticism of Trump in recent days, including with an editorial in a state-run newspaper that called him “as ignorant as a child” on foreign policy and suggested China might offer military assistance to American enemies in retaliation.

But China is likely to lash out against Taiwan first. “The Chinese can punish Taiwan and get away with it,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, “but they can’t do that to the Trump administration.”

When Nixon met with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, he hoped to use the prospect of a break with Taiwan and normalisation of relations with Beijing to drive a wedge between China and the Soviet Union and secure China’s help in ending the Vietnam War. But President Xi Jinping of China has taken a hard line against independence for Taiwan and Hong Kong and may not have much room to maneuver given rising nationalist sentiment in the party and the broader public.

Analysts said it would be politically difficult for Xi to offer concessions on trade or security issues in the face of Trump’s statements on the One China policy, which Beijing has long portrayed as nonnegotiable and the prerequisite for cooperation on other issues.

“This will put Xi Jinping under pressure at home,” said Su Chi, chair of the Taipei Forum, a nonpartisan think tank, and a former official in the Nationalist Party, which favours closer ties with the mainland. “He will have to take action to show that he can’t be played around and taken advantage of by the Taiwanese president.”

Other Republican presidents who have expressed support for Taiwan – Ronald Reagan pledged to continue arms sales indefinitely, and George W. Bush vowed to do “whatever it took” to defend the island if attacked by China – generally did so in ideological terms, supporting its evolution into the world’s only Chinese democracy.

But Trump has not made such statements, and that has prompted many in Taiwan to question the health of the island’s relationship with the United States.

Some argue that Trump’s approach should be a sign that Taiwan cannot rely on Washington and needs to strengthen ties with other countries in Asia.

Others say that he has presented Taiwan with a chance to expand trade with the United States and build support among the American public.

“We need to talk to the American people so they can have a deeper understanding of Taiwan. We want to tell them that we are their true ally and that we share many common values,” said Huang Kuo-chang, chair of the New Power Party, which emerged from the student protests in 2014 that successfully blocked the trade deal with China.

Lin, the student protest leader, said Trump had opened a potential path for Taiwan to gain the international recognition that he and others have been fighting so long for.

But sitting at a Taipei cafe behind a laptop computer with a sticker that read, “When dictatorship is a fact, revolution is a duty,” Lin also acknowledged that Trump was an unlikely and perhaps unreliable ally.

“We are not naive,” he said. “We don’t believe that the election of a new US president will necessarily bring about huge changes. But if there’s an opportunity, we will definitely not give it up.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/15/world/asia/trump-taiwan-china.html

 


Category: Taiwan

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