President-elect Donald Trump’s declaration that the United States could link its policy on Taiwan to trade negotiations with China prompted concerns on the island that it may become a pawn in wider superpower discussions.
“Trump’s comments regularly mention Taiwan. What advantage is this giving Taiwan? This is something we must consider,” Johnny Chiang, an opposition Nationalist lawmaker, told reporters. “Otherwise, among the superpowers, when we are betrayed, we won’t even realize it.”
Trump told Fox News in a weekend interview that he fully understood the “one China” policy, “but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
On Saturday, Chinese military aircraft flew over waterways near Taiwan as part of long-range exercises, Taiwan said.
The exercises came a week after Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. It was the first such contact between a U.S. president-elect or president and a Taiwan leader since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan in 1979.
China claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own – known as Beijing’s “one China” policy – and has never renounced the use of force to take back what it deems a wayward province. China lodged a diplomatic protest over the call and blamed Taiwan for what it called a “petty” move.
Tsai has never recognized Beijing’s “one China” policy. A month after she took power in May, Beijing cut official communication channels with Taipei. Her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) traditionally advocates independence for Taiwan.
“It looks like in Donald Trump’s mind [Taiwan] is a useful tool to pick the most sensitive nerve of China,” said Alexander Huang, chairman of the Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies in Taiwan and a former Taiwanese government policymaker.
Huang said it was too early to tell what Trump was angling at, but the real message could be about “a fair deal or a quid pro quo” between the U.S. and China.
Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang declined to comment about Trump’s Sunday comments. But Huang told Reuters, “When Taiwan is seen as a contributor in regional politics or regional security then you won’t be ignored nor used as a pawn for others.”
Taiwan defense minister Feng Shih-kuan told lawmakers in parliament on Monday the timing of China’s air drill seemed “a bit coincidental, but if they do it again in December, then it indicates they are testing where they need to improve their capabilities.”
“This is ‘attacking with words and scaring with weapons,'” he said, adding that he expected the frequency of military drills by China to increase.
For diplomatically-isolated Taiwan the risks are high as the United States is its only major political ally and sole arms supplier, while China is one of the island’s largest trade partners.
Fitch on Monday warned that major economic shocks to Taiwan from cooling relations with China were a lower probability, but “the risks around this baseline have risen.”
“On foreign policy, [China] is pretty rational except for one or two things and Taiwan is one of them,” said a foreign representative in Taiwan. “It’s like which of my 10 fingers do you want me to chop off.”