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Weighing War Over Taiwan in a Time of Trump

Trump’s new administration is already effecting bold changes in Washington’s traditionally artful balance between Beijing and Taipei.
Tsai Ing-wen in January of 2016.

Tsai Ing-wen in January of 2016.

President-elect Donald Trump and his advisers are already shaking up Washington’s delicate diplomacy on Taiwan — and provoking Beijing’s ire.

Days after his election, Trump announced Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus would be the White House chief of staff. Priebus had visited Taiwan and participated in official ceremonies to commemorate its government in October of 2011 and October of 2015, according to Taiwanese Foreign Affairs Ministry press releases.

China analysts were abuzz: How might this appointment upset a delicate balance over Taiwan — a topic that, for past presidents, has necessitated an abundance of nuance and doublespeak?

Washington’s Taiwan policy has long required an extraordinary dose of diplomatic finesse. The most glaring example is Taipei’s representatives in the United States: There are no Taiwanese embassies or consulates in the U.S.; all diplomacy is done through so-called Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Offices across the country.

That’s because, officially, the U.S. — like the United Nations and most of the world — acknowledges Beijing as the only Chinese government, and is ostensibly committed to the mainland Chinese policy of reunification. And yet the U.S. continues to offer Taiwan the military support it needs to stave off a potentially violent crackdown by Beijing. In terms of geographic strategy, Taiwan offers the U.S. a foothold in a region where China might otherwise become an irrefutable hegemon.

Would Trump — an unapologetic firebrand who in his campaign railed against China (despite so many Trump-brand products being manufactured there) — continue Washington’s traditional, artful, subtle politic on Taiwan?

It appears we’re getting a glimpse of a potentially rousing American overture to Taipei months before Trump is even sworn in.

Taiwanese officials appeared elated at news of Priebus’ pending appointment last week. Taiwan’s unofficial representative (read: ambassador) to the U.S., Shen Lyu-shun, who left office in June, described Priebus as “very close” to Taipei, the Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News reported.

Taiwan’s unofficial representatives to the U.S. declined to comment further on Priebus, saying it would be “inappropriate” to weigh in on U.S. official appointments. “We all wish Taiwan-U.S. relations will continue to prosper, and also for global peace,” says James Yu, one of Taipei’s spokesmen in the U.S. The RNC did not respond to a request for comment.

Priebus’ new role was not met with well wishes in Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping offered especially strong words on Taiwan following the announcement. “We will never allow any person, organization, or political party to sever a territory from China in any way ever,” he said, warning against foreign-inspired “separatist” agenda in Taiwan and also Hong Kong.

China’s U.S. Embassy did not respond to three separate email requests for comment on the issue. Chinese diplomats in Washington — who have responded frankly on tension over Taiwan in the past — typically withhold comment on especially sensitive topics concerning U.S.-Chinese relations. Dozens of professors at China’s top universities, close enough to the government to speak out on this issue and usually keen to underline Taiwan’s place in the People’s Republic, declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

Following Xi’s warnings, amid some confusion over whether Trump and Xi had even spoken yet and mounting friction over Sino-U.S. trade, Trump’s advisor and former president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, Edwin Feulner, met with Taiwan’s anti-Beijing President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwanese news reported.

Topping the Heritage Foundation’s “most popular” articles on its website is one from 2010 dubbing China’s evermore popular founding father Mao Zedong a “mass murderer.”

Among a host of explicit ties, the Heritage Foundation’s scholars gave former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou a “private debriefing” on economic issues last year, according to the organization’s 2015 annual report. As a charitable non-profit organization, the Heritage Foundation is not required to reveal its donors — Pacific Standard could not immediately verify cash ties between Taipei and the think tank, the latter heavily dependent on contributions.

Feulner took home over $3.5 million in reportable compensation from the organization in a single year, according to 2013 tax filings made available by ProPublica. He remains on staff at the Heritage Foundation as chairman of its Asian Studies Center.

Neither the Heritage Foundation nor the Trump campaign responded to a request for comment.

Whether Trump emerges as a hawk on Taiwan — and whether that blows up into military conflict with a Beijing adamant about an integral, autonomous Chinese territory — depends on the likes of Feulner, says Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based, U.S. Congress-launched East-West Center think tank.

“Trump said little, if anything, about Taiwan during the presidential campaign, suggesting Taiwan was not on his radar screen. Much will depend on what advice he gets from his international affairs advisors, and whether he follows their advice,” Roy says.

Where Trump is directly involved, though, international media outlets have indicated potential conflicts of interest. Trump is looking to “build luxury hotels” in the northern Taiwanese city of Taoyuan, Taiwan Newsreported earlier this month, citing the city’s mayor, Cheng Wen-tsan. The report highlighted concerns that Trump’s business deals “would make him more prone to conflict of interest than any other president in American history.”

Christine Lin of Glodow Nead Communications, which represents Trump Hotels, says there are “no hotel projects to report at this time, but we are exploring opportunities around the world for both our Trump Hotels and Scion hotel brands.” Lin did not respond to further requests to verify whether dialogue over Taoyuan projects was indeed underway.

The Trump proto-administration’s diplomacy with Taipei is a departure from Washington’s norm, but whether it’s a pivot away from traditional Republican East Asia policy is unclear. That’s because the GOP’s stance on the region has been consistently complicated, particularly in recent years.

High-profile Republican politicians have at once vilified and sought to attract investments from China. During their short-lived bids for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Texas Governor Rick Perry at various moments warned against a rising China, but met with Chinese politicians to secure multimillion-dollar energy projects. Perry even said China would end up on the “ash heap of history” before embarking on a whirlwind tour of China, where he met two prospective investors who had come under scrutiny for illegal activity and environmental abuses.

Taipei may well have been pivoting toward the GOP for years before Trump’s election. The island’s government has, at times, toggled between working with Democratic and, more recently, Republican officials to further its modest U.S. diplomatic agenda.

Department of Justice records show that the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office first hired a consulting firm in 1985 to broker relations in the U.S. That firm, International Trade and Development Agency LLC, was headed by former Democratic Representative Lester Wolff, who authored the Taiwan Relations Act that allowed for the existing unofficial diplomacy between the U.S. and Taiwan today.

But, since 1985, TECRO has engaged five more U.S. firms, three of which are helmed by prominent Republicans and help with contacting who appear to be primarily Republican officials to discuss Taiwan-U.S. relations, public records seen by Pacific Standard show. One of those firms, Nickels Group, donated $15,000 to Priebus’ RNC last year through its political action committee, according to one September 2015 record.

Among the Democratic firms was one that appears to advise Taiwanese para-diplomats solely on communications with primarily Democratic legislators over the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

If there is a burgeoning partnership between the new Republican administration and Taiwan, China’s President Xi has made it amply clear that he will not tolerate a foreign power impeding reunification efforts.

The EWC’s Roy offered a few examples of how the Trump administration’s interactions with China might play out — barring the wild cards of an administration that has many Americans wondering what’s next.

“Worst case would be President Tsai pushing aggressively for formal independence and Beijing responding with military threats,” Roy says. “A more likely negative scenario would be Xi Jinping feeling compelled to force President Tsai to express support for the ’92 Consensus, a code phrase for ‘One China.’”

Tsai is unlikely to do either, Roy adds.

A spokesman for Taiwan’s representatives in Los Angeles told Pacific Standard that “maintaining the status quo will be our core ideal for ensuring peaceful and stable cross-strait relations.” But still, Taipei “remains resolute in defending its sovereignty and interests.”

If Tsai was compelled to express support — verbally or practically — for “One China,” and did not, “Xi might then react by making stronger threats, which would bring increasing defiance from Taiwan, and we could see a spiral of increasing tensions,” Roy says. “Thankfully, so far it looks like that situation is avoidable.”