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Taiwan's precarious role in the U.S.-China spat (Ringo Chiu)

Over the weekend, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen made a brief stopover in the United States, visiting Los Angeles and Houston on her way to meet with her allies in Paraguay and Belize.

It was an unofficial “transit visit,” the kind made by plenty of Taiwanese leaders before Tsai. This visit, however, seemed different, and offered a reminder that the Trump administration is willing to consider unorthodox, even provocative measures in its ongoing rivalry with China.

Such visits are usually low-profile affairs to avoid provoking China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province rather than an independent country. But Tsai’s trip was notably public, in part because of the United States lifting restrictions on Taiwanese journalists accompanying her. On social media, the Taiwanese leader shared images that made her “unofficial” stop look rather official.

In Houston, Tsai visited NASA, an agency banned by U.S. law from working with Chinese authorities because of fear of espionage. And she met U.S. lawmakers in Los Angeles, where Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said he looked forward to welcoming the Taiwanese president in Washington.

That may be wishful thinking on Sherman’s part, but radical changes to the foreign-policy status quo are hardly unusual under Trump. The president has signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encouraged more official meetings between Taiwanese officials and their U.S. counterparts. And increased support for Taiwan could serve as a useful geopolitical tool to further the administration’s moves against China.

So far, though, the Trump administration’s Taiwan policy has been unpredictable. Before he even entered office, Trump made the unorthodox move of accepting a congratulatory phone call from Tsai, sparking immediate recriminations from Beijing. Experts were divided on whether the call was a simple diplomatic blunder or something that had been planned; Trump later seemed to hint it had been the latter when he suggested rethinking the “one China” policy in which Washington recognizes only Beijing as a legitimate government.

Then, in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping a few weeks after he entered the White House, Trump agreed to honor the “one China” agreement. And when he visited Beijing last November, Trump cut a deferential figure in public meetings.

The issue of Taiwan has since been overshadowed by North Korea, but the rapidly escalating trade war between Beijing and Washington may change that. Over the past few months, the United States has imposed a variety of tariffs on China, seeking to rebalance what Trump has described as an unfair trading relationship. China has fired back with its own tariffs. There seems to be little sign of a compromise anytime soon — indeed, some China watchers have suggested that the issue isn’t really trade at all, but a broader geopolitical battle about the future of the region.

“The trade war has prompted thinking in China on whether a new Cold War has begun,” An Gang, a senior research fellow at the Pangoal Institution, said to Bloomberg News recently. Many in Beijing believe the trade dispute “now has military and strategic implications,” An said — certainly, the Trump administration has made a habit of muddying trade disputes with other foreign-policy issues.

But while U.S.-China tension looks like a boon for Taiwan, its government is no doubt aware that a sudden policy change may not necessarily be a good thing. Last November, Taiwan’s minister for mainland affairs told a group of visiting journalists there were worries that Taiwan could become “a bargaining chip” in negotiations with Beijing, with U.S. support for the island swapped for Chinese cooperation on North Korea or trade.

The United States would seemingly have little to lose on trade by jettisoning Taipei. China is the island’s largest commercial partner, accounting for more than 30 percent of its total trade. But its business with the United States is much smaller, and the trade surplus Taiwan enjoys there could potentially draw the ire of a U.S. president obsessed with the issue.

Politically, things may be trickier still. Many in Taiwan had hoped that, with his attention elsewhere, Xi would maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations. But despite U.S. support for Taiwan, Beijing has instead intensified its pressure campaign. It’s a multipronged effort, involving economic pressure such as cutting off tourists, applying diplomatic pressure to try to steal away Taiwan’s 18 remaining diplomatic allies and even attempts to induce a “brain drain” in the country. Military provocations, Beijing’s time-honored tool, have also continued.

Understandably, Tsai’s government has decided that it makes sense to stick close to Trump in the hopes of greater diplomatic recognition and economic help. That may be a wise bet: Even if the American president’s interest in Taiwan is limited, there are those around him who favor Taipei over Beijing and want to see Taiwan be brought in closer to Washington.

But the situation is undeniably risky for Taiwan, and the riskiest element of it all is Trump himself. With her visits to the United States, Tsai is hoping to reinforce the long-term viability of her country. But Trump tends to think in the short term — and he seems to favor deals over democracy.

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