TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Tsai Ing-wen’s precedent-shattering phone call with Donald Trump sent a thrill across Taiwan last week, but hopes are being tempered by fears that the U.S. president-elect may see the island democracy simply as a chit to reshape Washington’s relationship with Beijing, and that his unpredictability could spark an arms race and instability in East Asia.
“This phone call is a good start, but it has also opened a Pandora’s box,” says Shen Lyu-Shun, who served as Taiwan’s top diplomatic representative to Washington under Ms. Tsai’s predecessor, President Ma Ying-jeou.
Mr. Shen said he’s optimistic about the prospect for strong U.S.-Taiwan ties under Mr. Trump, but he expressed concern over the potentially damaging impact the incoming president’s penchant for surprises, like last week’s phone call, could have on Taipei’s already fraught relationship with Beijing.
“Surprises sometimes make things not manageable,” he told a small group of American journalists visiting Taipei via the Hawaii-based East-West Center last week. “This is something we have to be very careful about.”
It’s a sentiment shared by others here — particularly those who backed the government of Mr. Ma, a member of Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) who was widely seen to have pursued a conciliatory posture toward Beijing during his two terms in office that ended this year.
Ms. Tsai, whose Democratic Progress Party took control of the presidency in May, so far has been seen to push for more independence from Beijing.
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“Hopefully, [the Trump administration] can maintain a good relationship between Beijing and Washington and keep peace and order in this part of the world,” said Yu-Fang Lin, a scholar focused on security matters at the National Policy Foundation, a Taipei-based think tank aligned with the KMT.
“[When] two elephants fight against each other, the grass always suffers,” said Mr. Lin, suggesting that Taiwan would be the loser if Mr. Trump proceeds with what appears to be “quite a tough attitude toward mainland China.”
But Mr. Lin added that no one here really knows what Mr. Trump has in mind for U.S. relations with Taiwan or China.
“We do not know [if] his tough attitude toward mainland China reflects his mentality, his intentions, his future plans or is just a kind of strategy,” he said.
Mr. Lin added that Mr. Trump may be engaged in a kind of “madman theory” approach, aimed at making himself “appear to be very dangerous and hostile and very unpredictable to scare the leaders to make them fearful and uncertain.”
If that was his intent in partaking in and tweeting about his Dec. 2 phone call with President Tsai, it appears to have worked.
China bristled at the call, the first in 40 years between a Taiwanese leader and an American president-elect in the wake of the 1979 “One China” policy, under which the U.S. has recognized Beijing as the sole legal government of the Chinese people and cut off official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Chinese authorities, who regard Taiwan as their territory, issued a diplomatic protest, placing most of the blame on the Tsai government in Taipei for engaging in a “petty” tactic to agitate Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry also said it had issued “stern” comments to what it called the “relevant U.S. side,” implying it had raised the matter with Mr. Trump’s team.
Ms. Tsai sought to ease nerves last week by stressing in a statement that “one phone call does not mean a policy shift” between Taipei and Beijing or between Taipei and Washington.
But the call has spawned a flurry of speculation over what such a shift might look like once Mr. Trump gets his bearings in the White House.
‘A balance of power’
Analysts here say one possibility is that the incoming U.S. president could be far more willing than President Obama has been to push American military hardware to Taiwan with the goal of beefing up the island’s defenses against an agitated Chinese mainland just 112 miles away.
Despite economic ties that expanded between Taiwan and the mainland during the Ma years — China now represents some 40 percent of the island’s export market — Taiwanese officials remain wary about the more than 1,000 Chinese missiles said to be pointed at the island.
China launched missiles into waters off Taiwan in 1995 and 1996. During the years after, Taipei and Washington worked to position long-range early-warning radar systems along the island’s western coastline. Successive U.S. administrations have since continued arming Taiwan. The Obama administration has authorized more than $14 billion in weapons sales to Taiwan since 2009 — most recently with a $1.83 billion package last December.
But some Republicans have criticized the current White House for dragging its feet on sales and worrying too much about China’s reaction — particularly in light of annual Pentagon reports to Congress on Beijing’s own evolving military capabilities.
The most recent report, in April, said that even as diplomatic relations between Taipei and Beijing warmed during Mr. Ma’s final year in office, “there have been no signs that China’s military posture opposite Taiwan has changed significantly” and that the Chinese army is “capable of increasingly sophisticated military actions against Taiwan.”
The report noted how China has 23 destroyers and the largest navy of any nation in Asia as of 2016, compared with just four destroyers operated by Taiwan.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is seen to be surrounding himself with so-called China hawks, including his national security adviser nominee, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn.
Mr. Flynn made headlines as former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in April 2013, when he warned U.S. lawmakers that Beijing had deployed so-called “carrier killer” DF-21D anti-ship missiles along China’s southern coast facing Taiwan.
Mr. Trump’s defense secretary nominee, retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, also is seen to be a China hawk. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2015 that the Obama administration’s efforts to keep positive relations with China were “well and good” but “must be paralleled by a policy to build the counterbalance if China continues to expand its bullying role in the South China Sea and elsewhere.”
The question of whether that means Mr. Mattis will push as defense secretary to bolster Taiwan’s defenses is up for debate.
Some Taiwanese analysts are hopeful Mr. Trump will at least implement a more transparent schedule of weapons sales to Taiwan than Mr. Obama has, and that he won’t worry so much about appeasing China by limiting or delaying such sales.
“When we talk about the arms package, there’s always uncertainty,” said Lai I-Chung, a scholar with Taiwan Thinktank, a Taipei-based analysis group supportive of Ms. Tsai. “The timing of the passage [of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan] sometimes has been politically sensitive in terms of how [U.S. officials] view how this will impact U.S.-China relations.”
“We hope,” said Mr. Lai, “that the Trump administration would be able to proceed with the U.S.-Taiwan arms sales on its own merit.”
Others are wary about the implications associated with any increase in sales.
“Taiwan cannot afford an arms race within the region,” said retired Taiwanese navy Adm. Chen Yeong-Kang, who suggested that Mr. Trump might be wise to consider the “balance of risk” associated with arming Taiwan.
“When we’re taking about a balance of power, we’re talking about military power, political power or economic power. You have to also consider the balance of risk,” said Adm. Chen, a supporter of Mr. Ma, adding that Taiwan can “never purchase enough weapons” to offset the threat posed by mainland China.
“How to diffuse the regional crisis is our main purpose,” the retired admiral said, adding that the goal should be to “solve the problem politically through economic integration.”
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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