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No longer shunned?

Taiwanese hopes for warmer relations with the United States are tempered by concerns that the new U.S. president will use the island in making deals with China

No longer shunned?

Taipei (GoranQ/iStock)

Two months after a phone call between then-president-elect Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen broke nearly 40 years of U.S. protocol, the afterglow of newfound relevancy has begun to fade: Residents of the island of 23 million now worry whether they will be used as pawns between the dueling giants of the United States and China.

At a hip coffee shop in Taipei, 26-year-old Winnie Chang sips a green tea as she recalls feeling flattered when she first heard about the Trump-Tsai call. “Taiwan is a small country, so I didn’t think Trump would notice us,” Chang said. Then as Trump implied to U.S. media that the policy on Taiwan was negotiable based on China’s trade actions, her feelings changed: “We are a chess piece between the United States and China. ... My opinion is that he can’t be relied upon.”

Like many millennials, Chang identifies as Taiwanese rather than Chinese and recognizes the immense influence America’s leaders have on export-driven Taiwan, especially as Beijing continues to claim the island as part of its territory. Although she fears Trump may drop Taiwan once a deal with China is reached, Chang remains cautiously optimistic about Taiwan’s future. She quoted former premier Yu Shyi-kun, who said the new U.S. administration poses more of an opportunity than a challenge for Taiwan. Yu headed the Taiwanese delegation to Trump’s inauguration, facing a backlash from Beijing.

Taiwan Presidential Office via AP

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Dec. 2 through a speakerphone in Taipei (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP)

Even though the future is unclear, the 10-minute call between the two democratically elected leaders inspired hope of improved relations between the United States and Taiwan, as Trump brazenly disregarded the unwritten restrictions that China has long placed on the island. 

Bill Stanton, the director of the Center for Asia Policy in National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, does not support Trump but said he was “very excited” when he heard about the call: “I was struck from the start that it was well-planned, intentional, and some thought had gone into the remarks.”

Others also noticed the planning behind the call and were incensed: Chinese officials, who expend much effort getting the world to ignore Taiwan. Tsai’s call to Trump provoked a sharp reprimand from Beijing warning Tsai not to partake in “a small trick,” an ominous message given China’s vastly superior military power and rocky history with the island nation. That history very much shapes the actions of the present.


ON OCT. 24, 1945, the United Nations was formed in San Francisco with five permanent members of the Security Council: France, the Republic of China (what became Taiwan), the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Today the Security Council looks largely the same with one major difference—the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) now sits on the council while Taiwan is not allowed in the UN.

Due to China’s weighty pressure, Taiwan is also unable to join the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), and regional trade blocs. Taiwan only has official ties with 21 countries in the world, with the number continuing to dwindle. During the Olympic Games, Taiwanese athletes may only participate under the name “Chinese Taipei” and cannot carry Taiwan’s flag or play its national anthem. This has serious repercussions beyond national pride: In 2003, the WHO denied Taiwan access to information on the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which had infected hundreds of people on the island.

Even with the 21st-highest GDP in the world, a thriving technology sector, and a vibrant democracy, Taiwan can’t escape the noose Beijing placed around its neck and take part in the international community. That means Taiwan has less representation in the United Nations than Tuvalu, a 10-square-mile island north of Fiji with a meager population of 10,640.

The online publication Quartz expressed Taiwan’s dilemma perfectly in a December headline following the call: “The unbearable sadness of being Taiwan, a liberal island other democracies refuse to talk to.”

About the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, Taiwan sits 110 miles southeast of China in a strategic spot in the South China Sea. The Netherlands, Spain, China, and Japan have all had their hand at ruling Taiwan in the past 400 years, and the question of sovereignty became even more muddled after World War II when the Treaty of San Francisco forced Japan to relinquish control of the island.

The 1943 Cairo Declaration handed Taiwan to the governing Republic of China (ROC), which in 1949 lost a civil war against the Chinese Communist Party. Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and 2 million nationalist soldiers and refugees fled to the island with China’s most precious national treasures, settling in and causing tensions with locals—Taiwanese aboriginals and Chinese migrants who had resided on the island for hundreds of years.

While the international community originally recognized the ROC as the “real China,” things changed as mainland China opened up and President Richard Nixon re-established ties to China in 1972. China’s stipulation for the United States and other countries that wanted diplomatic relations: Dump Taiwan. It shouldn’t be considered a separate country, Beijing argued, but just another province of China like Guangdong or Anhui.

In an effort to appease the growing superpower of China, the rest of the world began to distance itself from Taiwan, dropping diplomatic relations and kicking the island out of international groups. In the 1990s as China quashed dissent and covered up the Tiananmen Square massacre, where the Chinese military killed hundreds or even thousands of protesting students, Taiwan peacefully transitioned into a democracy, promoting freedom of religion, press, and speech. Yet it was China that had a seat in the UN’s Security Council, not Taiwan.

The United States’ policy on cross-strait relations is necessarily vague: Called the “One China policy," the United States acknowledges that China claims sovereignty on Taiwan without specifying whether it agrees with that assessment. Yet the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 authorized de facto relations between the United States and Taiwan, including the stipulation that America would intervene militarily if the PRC attacks Taiwan.

As China continued to show disregard for international law and human rights, the Republican Party restated its support of Taiwan in its platform last year with a phrase reaffirming the Six Assurances made by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, which says the United States does not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan and would continue selling arms to Taiwan. The 2016 platform also criticized China while stating, “We salute the people of Taiwan, with whom we share the values of democracy, human rights, a free market economy, and the rule of law.”

Stanton, who also headed the American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto U.S. embassy) from 2009 to 2012, noted that it is these common values that make Taiwan a better ally than China. He noted that Taiwan had succeeded in the democratization that the United States had hoped for in so many other countries, yet still could not count on U.S. support in the face of China’s bullying.


LAST YEAR TAIWANESE overwhelmingly voted Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party into office, angering Beijing. The Democratic Progressive Party historically supports Taiwanese independence. While Tsai urges a more moderate status quo with the island’s giant neighbor, China has responded to the election by cutting its quota of tourists to Taiwan, flexing its economic muscle. 

Dina Litovsky/Redux

A tourist looks over larger-than-life paintings at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. (Dina Litovsky/Redux)

While some in the media at first claimed the Tsai-Trump call was an uninformed moved by Trump, advisers soon admitted it had been long planned by Trump’s pro-Taiwan advisers, which include Stephen Yates, a former national security official under George W. Bush; anti-China economist Peter Navarro; and the former head of The Heritage Foundation, Edwin Feulner. 

As excited as Stanton was about the call, he is hesitant about what the U.S.-Taiwan relationship will look like in the future. For one thing, Trump has picked several Goldman Sachs executives as Cabinet nominees. This seems at odds with his tough-on-China stance, as the company has pushed for closer relations with China in order to grow the company overseas. Stanton also questioned how Trump will antagonize China while cozying up to Russia, a close ally to China.

Russell Hsiao, head of the D.C. think tank Global Taiwan Institute, also noted the call was a “meaningful gesture,” yet it “hardly indicated a policy change.” He believes Trump can prove his desire to rebalance the U.S.-Taiwan-China relationship through incremental steps: increasing arms sales to help Taiwan defend itself in the case of attack, expanding communication between the United States and Taiwan, and supporting the island’s participation in international bodies.

In recent interviews, Trump has said the United States could change its tune on the foundational “One China” policy if China doesn’t play fair. Yet Hsiao believes media coverage on the One China policy has made it appear that the two countries have a consensus where there is none: He suggested the new administration clearly reiterate the policy and stress that the United States’ acknowledgment of China’s position is not the same as agreeing with its position.

All these steps would obviously upset China, which in recent months has angrily rebuked both Trump and Tsai, sailed its aircraft carrier in the Taiwan Strait, and bribed the small African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe to break ties with Taiwan. In a further blow to Taiwan, Nigeria, one of China’s closest allies, ordered Taiwan to move its trade office from the capital of Abuja to the city of Lagos.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning in the South China Sea (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

“If Trump is determined to use this gambit in taking office, a period of fierce, damaging interactions will be unavoidable, as Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves,” said the government-run China Daily. Another tabloid, the Global Times, said any effort to change the One China policy would cause China to “speed up Taiwan reunification and mercilessly combat those who advocate Taiwan’s independence.”

China plans to keep the hope of reunification alive by intimidation and economic pressure, and has long threatened to take the island by force if necessary. Yet Stanton believes that an attack would be low on Beijing’s priority list as “no one in China would want to reunify through killing Chinese people.” 

If an attack were to happen, experts debate whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid. The TRA guarantees that the United States will provide the “defense articles and defense services” necessary to “enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.” However, it does not determine the extent to which the United States would step in to help. This strategic ambiguity was initially intended to keep China from attacking the island and to deter Taiwan from declaring independence, but Hsiao argues that such a stance is outdated and now has “the effect of emboldening China in developing its capabilities.”

Thus far Trump has only mentioned Taiwan in the context of how it can economically benefit the United States, not about its shared democratic values. Yet Stanton believes America should stand with democracies rather than cave to Chinese economic power. “We have to be less sensitive to China’s hurt feelings,” Stanton noted. “The Chinese government has hurt lots of feelings, and we need to do what is of best interest to the United States and support democracy and the freedom of people to decide their own future.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.



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  • servant
    Posted: Thu, 02/09/2017 01:16 pm

    This is an extremely informative article. Excellent job! I look forward to more like it from World.