Will Trump test the waters around Taiwan?

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Wandering the hallways of the American Institute in Taiwan in search of a new passport, I was taken back by the outdated condition of the building. Given the modernity of Taiwan, I had expected a larger, grandiose complex, only to find a small building with few floors and cramped rooms.

Only later that day did I discover plans to develop a new complex of modern, elegant buildings, scheduled to open in mid-June.

The construction of the new complex in Taipei is symbolic of recent efforts by Washington to counter a more belligerent approach by Beijing over Taiwan. Ever since Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency in 2016, her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has come under increasing pressure from Beijing. Tsai has attempted to present her party, which has a long history of favoring formal independence for Taiwan, as a benign force.

Beijing, however, considers Taiwan part of Fujian province and an inalienable part of “one China” – therefore ineligible for state relations with the United States. US relations with the island have evolved significantly since the days when the US ambassador to China was assigned to Taipei and the Chinese ambassador to the US represented Taiwan.

Today, Washington has no formal ties with the island but is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character, and shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, since assuming office in 2012, has cut off official communication after Tsai failed to endorse the “one China” concept as part of the 1992 Consensus during her inaugural address. Xi has since discouraged mainland tourists from visiting the island, blocked Taiwan’s participation in international forums, persuaded other nations to shift diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing, and sought the extradition of Taiwanese criminal suspects to the mainland, rather than back to Taiwan.

Xi has also stepped up the military threat by flying People’s Liberation Army bombers, escorted by fighter jets, around the island. Last year, the PLA Air Force flew 16 sorties close to Taiwan, and the PLA Navy sailed its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait separating China and Taiwan. More recently, China unilaterally adopted new civilian aircraft flight paths over the strait, and close to Taiwan-controlled islands.

Washington, despite other distractions, has taken notice of Beijing’s actions against Taipei and implemented its own counterpunch efforts in recent months

Washington, despite other distractions, has taken notice of Beijing’s actions and implemented its own counterpunch efforts in recent months. Among the more recent efforts is the Taiwan Travel Act, passed by the US Senate on February 28. The act allows US officials to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts, and grants reciprocal access for high-level Taiwanese officials to meet with their counterparts in the US. While the legislation awaits only President Donald Trump’s signature to become law, it drew the immediate ire of Chinese officials and state-run media.

In a regular press conference on March 1, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded forcefully, saying “China is strongly dissatisfied with this and resolutely opposes it,” adding that the legislation “seriously violates” the “one China” principle, while urging the US to “stop pursuing any official ties with Taiwan or improving its current relations with Taiwan in any substantive way.”

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office added a warning, “do not rely on foreigners to build yourselves up, or it will only draw the fire upon you.”

And an editorial in China Daily said the US legislation would encourage Tsai to further independence, “Which, if she persisted, would lead to the inevitable consequence of triggering the Anti-Secession Law that allows Beijing to use force to prevent the island from seceding.”

The widely read state-run Global Times also jumped in, warning in an editorial Beijing could “make targeted measures against pro-independence forces in Taiwan.”

Interestingly, the passage of the legislation coincided with the visit of a large delegation of US House and Senate committee members and staff, led by Senator James Inhofe, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Forces Committee. The delegation met with Tsai and her senior ministers, and issued the following statement:

“With China becoming more aggressive and intent on expanding its influence globally, the United States–Taiwan security relationship is now more important than ever,” the senator said. “By ensuring they have the ability to defend themselves, Taiwan will continue to be an important part of promoting regional stability.”

Should the mercurial US president sign the proposed legislation, which is due to go into effect this Friday, March 16, the Taiwan Travel Act will join separate legislation that Trump signed in December, which includes a provision encouraging mutual port calls by US and Taiwanese naval vessels.

In light of continuing aggressive military posturing by Beijing, some political analysts such as Michael Green, senior vice-president for Asia and Japan chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), are calling for Tsai and her government to exert caution.

Just how angry Beijing may get, and how it will respond,  is a matter of whether Trump signs the act into law and how Tsai’s government may choose to assert its rights under the legislation. Beijing was not pleased with, but showed restraint over, the recent port of call by a US Navy aircraft carrier in Vietnam.Would Xi and the Chinese leadership show the same restraint if the US carrier visited Taiwan?

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