On Wednesday evening, with two days to go before Donald Trump’s swearing-in as president of the United States, Taiwan’s representative in the U.S. laid out what Taiwan wants from the relationship – and it does not include being offered up as a “bargaining chip” in the United States’ relationship with China.
Speaking at a dinner celebrating 80 years of diplomacy at Twin Oaks, the Washington, D.C. estate owned by Taiwan’s government, Representative Stanley Kao praised the current state of U.S.-Taiwan relations.
The relationship has “never been better in recent memory,” he said, even if engagement is “quiet and low-key” at times. Taiwan hopes to continue that momentum under the new Trump administration – with a caveat. The relationship “should be based on its merit and not used … as some kind of bargaining chip,” Kao said, to applause from the audience.
Kao’s comment touches on a concern that Trump may view Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, as a bargaining chip in the larger U.S.-China relationship. Such worries were sparked by a series of comments from the president-elect after his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a first since the United States transferred diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the People’s Republic of China. The call itself was largely viewed as a diplomatic victory in Taiwan, but Trump’s post-call rhetoric complicated matters.
In an interview with Fox News on December 11, Trump claimed to “fully understand the ‘one China’ policy” while being unsure as to the value of keeping the policy intact. “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,” he said. His comments made it sound as though the U.S. approach to Taiwan was open to negotiation, depending on Beijing’s behavior in unrelated areas of U.S.-China cooperation.
More recently, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that, when it comes to U.S.-China relations, “Everything is under negotiation, including one China.”
Beijing’s reaction has received a great deal of attention, but the unease in Taiwan is just as real. The idea of Trump “making a deal” with China over Taiwan is a dangerous one from Taipei’s perspective. While Trump seems to be suggesting that the United States would purposefully elevate relations with Taiwan to pique China, the other side of the coin – that Washington might consider cutting the cord with Taipei in exchange for Chinese cooperation elsewhere – isn’t far from analysts’ minds. U.S. scholars such as Charles Glaser have previously suggested that the United States should relinquish its commitments to Taiwan as part of a “grand bargain” with China.
Glaser’s idea sparked heavy backlash in the U.S. policy community, but the possibility is enough to keep Taiwanese diplomats up at night. That’s why Trump’s own suggestions of the “one China” policy being negotiating leverage in a broader “deal” are so concerning to Taiwan – enough so that Kao addressed the topic directly in his remarks.
In the audience for Kao’s comments were all 11 members of the Taiwanese delegation to Trump’s inauguration: Former Premier You Si-kun, Taichung City Mayor Lin Chia-lung, Chiayi County Magistrate Chang Hwa-kuan, National Security Council Advisor Tung Chen-yuan, Chief Administrative Officer of Asia Silicon Valley Development Agency Huang Chuang-ya, and six members of the Legislative Yuan: Chen Ting-fei, Lu Yu-ling, Ko Chih-en, Lin Wei-chou, Freddy Lim, and Chen Yi-chieh. According to You, who is the delegation head, their major task is to demonstrate Taiwan’s congratulations to Trump.
However, You also made sure to underline Taiwan’s difficult diplomatic situation in his remarks. Taiwan’s diplomatic quandary is “even more challenging” than Israel’s, the former premier said. The U.S.-Taiwan relationship is a crucial piece in determining whether that challenge grows or eases, and Trump personally will play a role as well.
As Kao put it, Taiwan will pursue a “sustainable and predictable” relationship with the United States under Trump – a task made more difficult by the fact that the president-elect prides himself on his unpredictability. Several Trump advisers, including his future chief of staff Reince Priebus, are seen as friendly toward Taiwan, giving leaders in Taipei cause for optimism. However, that optimism remains cautious, as it’s still unclear to what extent any of his advisers will be able to guide Trump’s mercurial temperament.
Still, Kao ended on a cheerful note, with a nod to the new president’s favorite slogan. Together, he said, Taiwan and the United States can “make [their] relations great again.”