Trump’s Uncomfortable ‘Bargaining Chip’ Across the Strait

There can be little doubt that Taiwan is entering unsafe waters as a result of the sensational early-December telephone call between US President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Chinese officials have been remarkably restrained so far, presumably in order not to feed a vicious cycle of insults and tensions versus the incoming US administration, but the island, 180 km. across the Strait of Taiwan from the Chinese mainland, did get a wakeup call when Chinese military aircraft began now roaming not only the strait but also the island’s remote east side.

As the east side has traditionally been regarded as the Taiwanese military’s safe haven, this represents a major step by Chinese forces in the potential preparation for a future invasion. Taiwan is hardly an impregnable fortress despite the width of the strait. China’s dramatic military buildup over the past decade, coupled with declining Taiwanese defense budgets, has shifted the balance of power to the point “where defeat in an invasion scenario – barring foreign intervention – is now inevitable,” according to a report by the US Naval Institute.

The China-friendly Kuomintang, the out-of-power nationalist party which ruled Taiwan on and off since Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland in 1949, urged caution in the wake of the interchange between Trump and Tsai.

“An unstable Taiwan Strait could destabilize Northeast Asia and even the entire world, and we urge president [Tsai] to refrain from putting the lives of 23 million Taiwanese at risk,” the party said in a prepared statement.

The 61-year-old Tsai took power in May after the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors an independent Taiwan, defeated the Kuomintang in January in national elections.

Since that time, the government in Beijing has employed a series of strategies to attempt to bully the Taiwanese government back into line, ringing in a series of measures to slow the Taiwanese economy and force it to hew closer to the unification line.

With tensions already rising, the call has thus made Taiwan an unexpected bargaining chip in the global power game. Trump has subsequently questioned the US’s decades-old endorsement of Beijing’s One-China policy, which Washington has followed since 1972, when then-US president Richard Nixon signed the Shanghai Communique with then-Chinese premier Zhou En-lai. The One-China policy has been the basis of US-China reconciliation since that time.

This stunning turnaround in Taiwan affairs follows an eight-year lull facilitated by efforts of not rocking the boat in the delicate triangular US-China-Taiwan relations by Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang and by the US government under President Barack Obama with its policy of “strategic ambiguity.”

Taiwan, being small, with few allies and lacking a strong military, has been a pawn in the game of international politics throughout most of its history. The island has suffered much less in this role than countries in similar positions, e.g., Poland and Korea, but being a bargaining chip led to Taiwan’s colonization by Japan from 1895 to 1945 after China lost the Sino-Japanese War.

Although there were positive aspects of that experience for Taiwan, with the Japanese promoting economic development and social progress, “being enslaved by an invading great power overall is obviously not a desirable situation,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

Roy explained that Taiwan was again something of a bargaining chip during the Cold War when the Korean War broke out. Then the US government decided to protect the exiled KMT government to prevent the communist bloc from making any more gains, which probably saved Taiwan from conquest by the Chinese communists in the early 1950s.

Since then Taiwan has been caught between China and the US.

“In this situation, Taiwan has autonomy, but at the cost of constant pressure from and tension with China, as well as limited diplomatic space,” Roy said.

In recent years Taiwan has additionally benefited from China’s miracle economic growth without serious side effects “because China has global ambitions, and the United States still sees Taiwan in terms of its national interests, and there is a balance between these two big powers vis-à-vis Taiwan,” said John F Copper, the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

With Trump now openly threatening Beijing to shake up this balance, the strategic implications for US-China relations as well as for Taiwan’s quest of remaining a relatively fortunate pawn are obviously huge.

“China’s view has been that Washington must practice One-China as a precondition to any kind of constructive relationship with China, but Trump has in effect turned that idea around: China must fulfill American preferences in order to earn the reward of US recognition of One-China,” Roy said.

He forecast that if China feels the US is shifting toward what the Chinese would see as increased obstruction of unification, the Chinese will immediately become less cooperative on important US objectives, and will also assume the worst possible U.S. motives on all other regional strategic issues.

“The influence of pessimistic, military-oriented Chinese strategists on Chinese policy-making will be strengthened,” Roy concluded.

As to what is in store for Taiwan, Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, predicted that Beijing will on the one hand explore what deals it can make with Trump – “almost certainly at Taiwan’s expense, though not exclusively at Taiwan’s expense” – and on the other step up preparations to confront the Trump administration.

“It is a good thing for Taiwan to have Trump answer a call from Tsai, but there is a price to be paid for this, and until we know what the price is, it is impossible and unwise to conclude Taiwan will end up better off,” Tsang said.

Copper, for his part, expressed cautious optimism.

“Taiwan may not be able to wag the two big dogs,” Copper said, but it may be able to deal effectively with both, as it is such a critical actor in terms of US-China relations.

“To remain a ‘fortunate pawn’ Taiwan needs to have astute decision makers guide its foreign relations and be able to play the game of global politics with finesse and flexibility,” Copper said.

Jens Kastner ( is a Taiwan-based regular contributor to Asia Sentinel