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Will Trump Use Taiwan to Force a Confrontation with Beijing?

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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Military University

Since December 2016, Taiwan has resurfaced in the international news due to remarks by President-elect Donald Trump and his close advisers. Currently, the U.S. and most of its allies recognize a “One China” policy, which specifies that Taiwan and China are one nation, even though they operate independently with different governments.

In essence, Taiwan is a democratic country and China is a communist country. Each wants the other to change its form of government.

The U.S. decided to officially recognize Communist China in 1978. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, expressing its continued support for Taiwan. This law allows the U.S. to maintain commercial, cultural and other relations with Taiwan through unofficial channels. More importantly, it requires the U.S. to intervene militarily if China attacks or invades Taiwan.

This has been the status quo for decades, but now it is being challenged as Trump prepares to become president. It started when Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai, Ing-wen in December. Then Tsai scheduled an official visit to four Central American nations this month.

Taiwan’s Presidential Visit to Houston Arouses Consternation in China

China officially requested that Tsai not be allowed to visit the United States as part of this trip. Despite this request, on her way to Central America, Tsai stopped in Houston to meet with senior Republican lawmakers. Tsai said that Taiwan was only looking to create more jobs in the U.S. through greater investment, trade, and procurement.

These actions by Tsai, along with the remarks from Trump and other people, have caused China significant consternation.

The Global Times, a Chinese government media outlet, has made a number of replies to this new development. It stated that “if Trump reneges on the One China policy, the Chinese people will demand the government to take revenge. There is no room for bargaining.”

Beijing believes Tsai is interested in formal independence from China, which is a red line for the Chinese government. The Global Times warned, “Tsai needs to face the consequences for every provocative step she takes.”

China Is the Only Country with Significant Influence on North Korea

What is really going on here? The answer may not be obvious. It might have to do with the fact that North Korea has tested nuclear weapons and is now testing ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory.

In the near future, North Korea could acquire the capability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. This is clearly a red line for the U.S. and the U.N. However, nothing seems to be stopping North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from pursuing this goal.

There is only one country that has significant influence on North Korea and that is China. Showing support with the rest of the world, China voted for U.N. resolutions condemning North Korea’s nuclear weapon tests and ballistic missile launches. Yet, that seems to be all China is willing to do to stop these programs. Clearly, that has not been enough.

It appears that the United States under President Trump could be positioning itself to play hardball with the Chinese over North Korea. If China does not convince North Korea to end its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs soon, the U.S. may well end up recognizing Taiwan as an independent country (which would explain the recent moves with Taiwan). If that happens, we might have an impending stand-off over U.S. and Chinese red lines.

About the Author

Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. His book about military base closures was published in 2009.

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