Donald Trump’s often confrontational stance towards Beijing has won him fans in Taiwan, including figures in the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Senior DPP politicians have shown ostentatious support for the US president on social media in recent months, with one DPP legislator even turning up at a public meeting wearing a Trump mask.
Critics of the DPP across the Taiwan Strait on the mainland and within the island itself are now deriding it for making the wrong bet on the American presidential election. Beijing has taken a more cautious approach, with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, waiting until Wednesday this week to send a congratulatory message to his “old friend” Joe Biden (see WiC518 for the duo’s long-running acquaintance).
In the meantime Trump’s outgoing administration has stepped up engagement with Taiwan, with Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo making another hugely controversial statement on American policy towards the island earlier this month.
“Taiwan has not been a part of China,” Pompeo said in an interview. “And that was recognised with the work that the Reagan administration did to lay out the policies that the United States has adhered to now for three and a half decades.”
Since then Keith Krach – one of Pompeo’s deputies – has hosted Taiwanese officials in Washington for discussions on economic cooperation, with Tsai’s government expressing hopes that the dialogue could lay the groundwork for a free trade agreement with the US. That would be a major diplomatic achievement for Tsai, especially as Taiwan was not part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed by Asia-Pacific nations earlier this month (see WiC519).
Krach’s visit to Taipei in September marked a highpoint in the Trump administration’s relationship with the DPP government – although it was also a trip that pushed Sino-US relations to a new nadir (see WiC512). As we have discussed in the past, one of the key foundations of Sino-US diplomatic relations has been Washington’s adherence to the ‘One China’ Policy’ stipulated in three communiqués since 1972 (see WiC436).
An apparent rejection of the same policy by Pompeo – America’s top diplomat – might have stirred a bitter diplomatic row in other circumstances. But the relative indifference of the Chinese government thus far is probably an indicator of its view that the policies of the Trump administration aren’t likely to be prolonged once Biden is inaugurated.
(State broadcaster CCTV still felt compelled to launch a scathing attack on Pompeo himself, however, calling him “human scum” and referencing in – expletive form – his habit of stirring things up.)
The chances are that the president-elect has a more nuanced understanding of the ‘One China’ policy than his soon-to-be predecessor. In 2001 when Biden visited Taipei as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he met then Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian (also from the DPP and later jailed for corruption) and told him that the Taiwanese shouldn’t count on American help if a formal declaration of independence prompted an attack from the mainland.
Taiwanese media at the time suggested that Biden was trying to engage with Beijing over trade and other global issues in the hope that the US could draw China closer into the American-led multilateral system. Trump’s administration has ditched any semblance of the same kind of engagement, although how much Biden’s stance has changed over the past two decades remains to be seen. Last month he talked about forging deeper ties with Taiwan in an op-ed in the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the US, although there were no specifics on how he would do that, Bloomberg reports.
One thing that Beijing will be looking out for is whether Biden picks up the phone if Tsai Ing-wen calls to congratulate him as well. Trump did so four years ago – to the fury of the Chinese leadership – although it wasn’t clear that he fully understood the significance of the moment.
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