TAIPEI — A year after a newly elected Donald Trump enraged China by taking a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan, the pro-American island nation is pleading for Trump’s protection against Beijing’s bullying.
At the same time, Republicans in Congress are pressuring Trump with pro-Taiwan legislation that could strain his delicate relationship with China.
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China is already warning Trump to back off: One senior Chinese diplomat visiting Washington in December warned that his country would invade Taiwan if U.S. Navy ships dock in Taiwanese ports, an idea proposed in the annual defense spending bill Trump signed in December.
In exclusive interviews here with POLITICO, Taiwanese officials urged Trump to stand firm, saying Beijing has stepped up a campaign of political and military intimidation during the president’s first year in office.
“Mainland China has a big strategy to exercise more political pressure toward Taiwan,” said Chang Hsiao-Yueh, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister. Chang and other officials here urged the Trump administration to step up its support for Taipei.
The result is a foreign policy conundrum for Trump, who has said he wants to stand up to China’s regional aggression — but who also wants Chinese President Xi Jinping’s help on North Korea and trade issues.
While Trump’s Taiwan policy remains unclear, Congress is taking a lead role. In January, the House passed legislation encouraging more diplomatic contacts between Trump officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. That, too, has angered Beijing, which considers Taiwan a “renegade province” of China that should not have direct relations with America.
A Jan. 10 editorial in the hawkish Beijing newspaper Global Times called the measure “unimaginable in the past” and said it showed that “forces in the US are attempting to flare up the Taiwan question … and use it as leverage against China.” Last week, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan affairs office said the bill “severely violates” established policy between the U.S., China and Taiwan, which has discouraged direct contacts between officials in Washington and Taipei.
Taiwan has been a thorn in U.S.-China relations for decades. Beijing does not recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan, a holdout for anti-communist forces after China’s civil war ended in 1949. The U.S. treats Taiwan as a sovereign nation and sells it advanced weaponry. But through a complicated diplomatic understanding known as the “one-China” policy, the U.S. recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China and not the Republic of China (the official name of Taiwan).
That’s why Trump’s Dec. 2, 2016, phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen so angered China. Trump, in a February call with Xi, smoothed feathers — and disappointed some China hawks in Congress by reaffirming the U.S.’s one-China policy, though he also suggested it could be tied to China’s willingness to bargain on trade and other issues.
That, in turn has alarmed some Taiwanese leaders who fear that Trump may see their country as a potential bargaining chip in his dealings with Xi. Trump may be “prepared to use the fate of the 23 million people in Taiwan as a bargaining chip to negotiate stronger Chinese assistance on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue or to rebalance the U.S.-China economic relationship,” Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, wrote last year.
“Trump, being the businessman that he is, always looking to do deals. He sees international relations as transactions,” said Jason Hsu, a member of Taiwan’s legislature representing the opposition KMT party. “Ultimately, he is not concerned about human rights, freedom, democracy, freedom of speech, these are not in his thinking.”
Trump has sent mixed and unclear signals about relations with Taiwan and China, said Wang Ting-yu, a legislator and member of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party. “The vague message is sometimes more dangerous than missiles,” Wang added.
Trump did approve the sale of $1.4 billion in U.S. arms to Taiwan last June. But unease on the island is growing amid what Taiwanese officials call an escalating Chinese campaign of intimidation against its much smaller neighbor. Chinese warplanes have increased flights around Taiwan — with sorties of fighters and bombers armed to attack, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry.
In early January, China started flying commercial jets through several lanes in the Taiwan Strait, violating a 2015 agreement. Taiwan calls the flights a “reckless” safety hazard.
The provocations are angering Taiwan’s champions on Capitol Hill, where Beijing is battling efforts to provide Taipei with more robust U.S. support.
Sen. Marco Rubio criticized China’s new air routes as “a violation of the longstanding cross-strait status quo.”
Another champion of Taiwan and supporter of the travel bill, is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who met with Tsai in Houston on Jan. 8, 2017 despite Beijing’s strong objections.
In an interview, Cruz slammed as “absurd” a December threat by Chinese diplomat Li Kexin during an event at Beijing’s embassy in Washington. Li told colleagues that he had warned U.S. officials against docking American warships in Taiwan.
“The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unifies Taiwan with military force,” Li said, according to Chinese media reports cited by Reuters.
“The threat from a low-level Chinese diplomat of a military invasion of Taiwan was absurd, unduly provocative and should be met with laughter and derision,” Cruz said.
Cruz also denounced China for “vigorously” lobbying to kill strong ports-of-call language for Taiwan that he wanted included in the 2018 defense authorization bill, Cruz said.
A Senate version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act from September called for the Pentagon to study and issue a report about the feasibility of Navy vessel visiting Taiwanese ports. Cruz said Beijing urged the language be deleted in a House-Senate conference committee, “and sadly the conferees acceded to that request.” The final NDAA Trump signed in December included no reference to Taiwanese ports of call.
The idea is supported by Trump’s new assistant secretary of defense for Asia, Randall Schriver. “Such port calls would be entirely consistent with our One China Policy as we define it,” Shriver told senators in 2017. Taiwanese officials interpreted Schriver’s Senate confirmation in December as a strong sign of continued U.S. willingness repel China.
Beijing is also watching closely to see whether Congress acts on the Taiwan Travel Act. Rubio has sponsored the Senate version of the legislation, but no Senate action has yet been scheduled on the measure.
Trump would not have to wait for Congress to act before sending one of his top officials here, however, and Taiwanese officials urged him to consider doing so.
“Send one ranking [U.S.] general to Taiwan. Pay a visit,” Wang said. “That is a strong signal — not only to Taiwan but to Asia.”
Since 2001, only one Cabinet-level U.S. official has visited Taiwan: Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy, in 2014.
Even as leaders here nervously eye Chinese military exercises and air-space violations, they worry about a less visible threat: political subversion. The threat of Chinese invasion has been part of daily life here for decades. Taipei’s night markets remain crowded, and softball practice continues along the Keelung River.
But Taiwanese officials are increasingly afraid that China, taking a page out of Russia’s playbook, is quietly interfering in Taiwanese politics as never before.
Chang, whose sole job as mainland affairs minister sole job is to communicate with Beijing — which has refused to speak to her since 2016 — said China’s goal is to “internally try to divide Taiwan, divide our society.”
She noted that other nations, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada have recently raised alarms about Chinese influence within their domestic politics.
The Chinese “are trying to establish networks here and mobilize some people to speak for their objectives — for their eventual goal to unify Taiwan,” she said.
Local media in Taipei have been covering the investigation of Wang Ping-Chung, a spokesman for a startup political party in Taiwan who Taipei prosecutors allege was paid by China to whip up propaganda supporting unification with the mainland. Wang was trying to recruit Taiwanese military personnel who China could use to sabotage Taiwan, prosecutors allege.
“We have a lot of reason to suspect that China’s hand is very much behind” efforts like Wang’s, Chang said.
“They are trying to divide Taiwan internally to create social instability,” she said of the Chinese.
“We all share the common concern the rise of China, its growing assertiveness,” Chang said, citing the National Security Strategy that the White House published on Dec. 18. “We have very good access to the U.S. government, and from the feedback, they keep their commitment to Taiwan,” she said.