Trump’s call with Tai­wan risks sta­bil­ity, U.S. ties in East Asia

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GUY TAY­LOR

TAIPEI, TAI­WAN | Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing­wen’s prece­dent-shat­ter­ing phone call with Don­ald Trump sent a thrill across Tai­wan last week, but hopes are be­ing tem­pered by fears that the U.S. pres­i­den­t­elect may see the is­land democ­racy sim­ply as a chit to re­shape Washington’s re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing, and that his un­pre­dictabil­ity could spark an arms race and in­sta­bil­ity in East Asia.

“This phone call is a good start, but it has also opened a Pan­dora’s box,” says Shen Lyu-Shun, who served as Tai­wan’s

top diplo­matic rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Washington un­der Ms. Tsai’s pre­de­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Ma Ying-jeou.

Mr. Shen said he’s op­ti­mistic about the prospect for strong U.S.-Tai­wan ties un­der Mr. Trump, but he ex­pressed con­cern over the po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing im­pact the in­com­ing pres­i­dent’s pen­chant for sur­prises, like last week’s phone call, could have on Taipei’s al­ready fraught re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing.

“Sur­prises some­times make things not man­age­able,” he told a small group of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists vis­it­ing Taipei via the Hawaii-based East-West Cen­ter last week. “This is some­thing we have to be very care­ful about.”

It’s a sen­ti­ment shared by oth­ers here — par­tic­u­larly those who backed the gov­ern­ment of Mr. Ma, a mem­ber of Tai­wan’s Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ist Party (KMT) who was widely seen to have pur­sued a con­cil­ia­tory pos­ture to­ward Bei­jing dur­ing his two terms in of­fice that ended this year.

Ms. Tsai, whose Demo­cratic Progress Party took con­trol of the pres­i­dency in May, so far has been seen to push for more in­de­pen­dence from Bei­jing.

“Hope­fully, [the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion] can main­tain a good re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bei­jing and Washington and keep peace and or­der in this part of the world,” said Yu-Fang Lin, a scholar fo­cused on se­cu­rity mat­ters at the Na­tional Pol­icy Foun­da­tion, a Taipei-based think tank aligned with the KMT.

“[When] two ele­phants fight against each other, the grass al­ways suf­fers,” said Mr. Lin, sug­gest­ing that Tai­wan would be the loser if Mr. Trump pro­ceeds with what ap­pears to be “quite a tough at­ti­tude to­ward main­land China.”

But Mr. Lin added that no one here re­ally knows what Mr. Trump has in mind for U.S. re­la­tions with Tai­wan or China.

“We do not know [if] his tough at­ti­tude to­ward main­land China re­flects his men­tal­ity, his in­ten­tions, his fu­ture plans or is just a kind of strat­egy,” he said.

Mr. Lin added that Mr. Trump may be en­gaged in a kind of “mad­man the­ory” ap­proach, aimed at mak­ing him­self “ap­pear to be very dan­ger­ous and hos­tile and very un­pre­dictable to scare the lead­ers to make them fear­ful and un­cer­tain.”

If that was his in­tent in par­tak­ing in and tweet­ing about his Dec. 2 phone call with Pres­i­dent Tsai, it ap­pears to have worked.

China bris­tled at the call, the first in 40 years be­tween a Tai­wanese leader and an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent-elect in the wake of the 1979 “One China” pol­icy, un­der which the U.S. has rec­og­nized Bei­jing as the sole le­gal gov­ern­ment of the Chi­nese peo­ple and cut off of­fi­cial diplo­matic re­la­tions with Tai­wan.

Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, who re­gard Tai­wan as their ter­ri­tory, is­sued a diplo­matic protest, plac­ing most of the blame on the Tsai gov­ern­ment in Taipei for en­gag­ing in a “petty” tac­tic to ag­i­tate Bei­jing. China’s For­eign Min­istry also said it had is­sued “stern” com­ments to what it called the “rel­e­vant U.S. side,” im­ply­ing it had raised the mat­ter with Mr. Trump’s team.

Ms. Tsai sought to ease nerves last week by stress­ing in a state­ment that “one phone call does not mean a pol­icy shift” be­tween Taipei and Bei­jing or be­tween Taipei and Washington.

But the call has spawned a flurry of spec­u­la­tion over what such a shift might look like once Mr. Trump gets his bear­ings in the White House.

‘A bal­ance of power’

An­a­lysts here say one pos­si­bil­ity is that the in­com­ing U.S. pres­i­dent could be far more will­ing than Pres­i­dent Obama has been to push Amer­i­can mil­i­tary hard­ware to Tai­wan with the goal of beef­ing up the is­land’s de­fenses against an ag­i­tated Chi­nese main­land just 112 miles away.

De­spite eco­nomic ties that ex­panded be­tween Tai­wan and the main­land dur­ing the Ma years — China now rep­re­sents some 40 per­cent of the is­land’s ex­port mar­ket — Tai­wanese of­fi­cials re­main wary about the more than 1,000 Chi­nese mis­siles said to be pointed at the is­land.

China launched mis­siles into waters off Tai­wan in 1995 and 1996. Dur­ing the years af­ter, Taipei and Washington worked to po­si­tion long-range early-warn­ing radar sys­tems along the is­land’s western coast­line. Suc­ces­sive U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions have since con­tin­ued arm­ing Tai­wan. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has au­tho­rized more than $14 bil­lion in weapons sales to Tai­wan since 2009 — most re­cently with a $1.83 bil­lion pack­age last De­cem­ber.

But some Repub­li­cans have crit­i­cized the cur­rent White House for drag­ging its feet on sales and wor­ry­ing too much about China’s re­ac­tion — par­tic­u­larly in light of an­nual Pen­tagon re­ports to Congress on Bei­jing’s own evolv­ing mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

The most re­cent re­port, in April, said that even as diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween Taipei and Bei­jing warmed dur­ing Mr. Ma’s fi­nal year in of­fice, “there have been no signs that China’s mil­i­tary pos­ture op­po­site Tai­wan has changed sig­nif­i­cantly” and that the Chi­nese army is “ca­pa­ble of in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated mil­i­tary ac­tions against Tai­wan.”

The re­port noted how China has 23 de­stroy­ers and the largest navy of any na­tion in Asia as of 2016, com­pared with just four de­stroy­ers op­er­ated by Tai­wan.

Mr. Trump, mean­while, is seen to be sur­round­ing him­self with so-called China hawks, in­clud­ing his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser nom­i­nee, re­tired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn.

Mr. Flynn made head­lines as for­mer di­rec­tor of the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency in April 2013, when he warned U.S. law­mak­ers that Bei­jing had de­ployed so-called “car­rier killer” DF-21D anti-ship mis­siles along China’s south­ern coast fac­ing Tai­wan.

Mr. Trump’s de­fense sec­re­tary nom­i­nee, re­tired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mat­tis, also is seen to be a China hawk. He told the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in Jan­uary 2015 that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to keep pos­i­tive re­la­tions with China were “well and good” but “must be par­al­leled by a pol­icy to build the coun­ter­bal­ance if China con­tin­ues to ex­pand its bul­ly­ing role in the South China Sea and else­where.”

The ques­tion of whether that means Mr. Mat­tis will push as de­fense sec­re­tary to bol­ster Tai­wan’s de­fenses is up for de­bate.

Some Tai­wanese an­a­lysts are hope­ful Mr. Trump will at least im­ple­ment a more trans­par­ent sched­ule of weapons sales to Tai­wan than Mr. Obama has, and that he won’t worry so much about ap­peas­ing China by lim­it­ing or de­lay­ing such sales.

“When we talk about the arms pack­age, there’s al­ways un­cer­tainty,” said Lai IChung, a scholar with Tai­wan Think­tank, a Taipei-based anal­y­sis group sup­port­ive of Ms. Tsai. “The tim­ing of the pas­sage [of U.S. arms sales to Tai­wan] some­times has been po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive in terms of how [U.S. of­fi­cials] view how this will im­pact U.S.-China re­la­tions.”

“We hope,” said Mr. Lai, “that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would be able to pro­ceed with the U.S.-Tai­wan arms sales on its own merit.”

Oth­ers are wary about the im­pli­ca­tions associated with any in­crease in sales.

“Tai­wan can­not af­ford an arms race within the re­gion,” said re­tired Tai­wanese navy Adm. Chen Yeong-Kang, who sug­gested that Mr. Trump might be wise to con­sider the “bal­ance of risk” associated with arm­ing Tai­wan.

“When we’re tak­ing about a bal­ance of power, we’re talk­ing about mil­i­tary power, po­lit­i­cal power or eco­nomic power. You have to also con­sider the bal­ance of risk,” said Adm. Chen, a sup­porter of Mr. Ma, adding that Tai­wan can “never … pur­chase enough weapons” to off­set the threat posed by main­land China.

“How to dif­fuse the re­gional cri­sis is our main pur­pose,” the re­tired ad­mi­ral said, adding that the goal should be to “solve the prob­lem po­lit­i­cally through eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion.”


Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump hav­ing spo­ken with Tai­wan Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen, thus go­ing against Amer­ica’s firmly es­tab­lished “One China” pol­icy, is stok­ing fears that Mr. Trump may ap­ply a “mad­man” ap­proach in or­der to in­tim­i­date Asian lead­ers.

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