On Monday morning, as Azar visited the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, several Chinese fighter jets briefly crossed the de facto maritime border that separates the island from mainland China. Later in the week, the Chinese military organized large-scale exercises in waters near Taiwan, touted in Beijing state media as a “warning” to those seeking independence on the island.
The trip of Azar – the highest U.S. official to visit the island since 1979 – is the latest in a series of high-profile moves by the Trump administration to bring the United States closer to Taiwan.
“The message to Beijing is that we have a partner in the United States and the United States has a friendship in Taiwan,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday.
Wu said that while he was “very concerned” about the aggressive actions of the Chinese government in recent months, both towards Taiwan and its regional neighbors, he believes Taipei could keep its relations with Beijing and Washington separate.
“The United States is saying publicly… that its relationship with Taiwan is independent of its relationship with anyone,” Wu said. “We still have the Chinese threat and it doesn’t matter if the relationship between Taiwan and the United States is good or bad, it’s still there. ”
But with Washington moving closer to Taiwan and the upcoming U.S. presidential election likely to further destabilize the already unstable U.S.-China relationship, Taipei could find itself in a precarious position with Beijing.
Maggie Lewis, an expert on contemporary Chinese law at Seton Hall University, said that at this time Taiwan needed stability in its relationship with the United States, and substantive gestures rather than words of support.
“What Taiwan needs from the United States is a strong and stable marriage, not a passionate romance,” Lewis said.
Warming up relationships
As its power and influence have grown, the Chinese government has insisted that the world recognize its one-China policy, which states that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it.
Today, only 15 countries maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, mostly small island countries, and their number is declining year by year.
Although Washington publicly recognizes A one-China policy, it does not recognize Beijing’s claims to the island and regularly provides support, including large sales of military equipment, to Taipei.
There is also a strong suggestion in the US government’s Taiwan Relations Act, passed in 1979, that America could come to the defense of Taipei if it was ever threatened militarily by Beijing.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government strongly denounced Azar’s visit, reiterating that Beijing opposed any “official interaction” between the two governments.
“This position is consistent and clear… I want to stress that the one-China principle is universally recognized by the international community. Any attempt to ignore, deny or challenge this principle is doomed to failure, ”said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. August 5.
Experts said China’s response to Azar’s visit has so far been relatively muted.
“(But) it shouldn’t be constructed as… Beijing’s acceptance of improving US-Taiwan relations,” said Zhiqun Zhu, professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University.
“I don’t think he’s doing anything now but that doesn’t mean he won’t do anything in the future. “
Taiwan’s “difficult position”
Relations between Beijing and Taipei have deteriorated since the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, who was perceived by the Chinese government to be in favor of the island’s formal independence.
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Wu said the Taipei government was “very concerned” about the deterioration of relations with Beijing. In particular, he feared that the Chinese Communist Party would try to use Taiwan to distract itself from growing economic and social problems at the national level.
“From Taiwan’s point of view, the better the relations between Taiwan and the United States, the better Taiwan will be protected,” he said.
Pew Research polls found that Taiwanese citizens are enthusiastic about forming a closer relationship with the United States, with 79% supporting closer political ties with Washington in a survey released in May 2020.
By comparison, only 36% said the same about establishing ties with the Xi Jinping administration in Beijing.
However, there have been indications that President Tsai and her government are reluctant to move too fast to embrace the United States, or to be caught up in the growing tensions between the two powers.
In a statement delivered at a meeting of his party’s senior leadership on August 5, less than a week before Azar’s visit, Tsai said that amid the deterioration in US-China relations, Taiwan ” must not give in to the pressure ”.
“But (we) must not move forward without thinking because of the support either,” she said, hinting that her government would remain cautious in its relations with Beijing, despite Washington’s public gestures of solidarity.
Foreign Minister Wu admitted that Taiwan wanted to avoid upsetting China. “We have our own strategy against China and our strategy is that we don’t want to enter a situation where Taiwan will be seen as a target,” he said. “We don’t want a provocation against China.”
While the Taiwanese government may be uncomfortable inside opposing Beijing by approaching the United States, experts said it has little real choice.
Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute in London, said the island had only a few international friends left and that faced with an aggressive Chinese government, Taipei had little choice but to embrace the United States. .
“Taiwan is in a very difficult position. The United States is the only government that will come out openly to support them, ”he said. “So they cannot afford not to work with the administration in place in Washington.”
The US move to move closer to Taiwan comes amid a series of measures taken by the Trump administration that angered Beijing, including the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston and presidential decrees against Chinese applications popular TikTok and WeChat.
Experts said all of these decisions were likely designed in part to help re-elect U.S. President Trump in the November election by showing he’s being tough on China.
But there’s no clear indication whether that tough stance on Beijing will remain after the election, whether Trump wins or not.
Speaking at National Taiwan University on Tuesday, Azar said the United States would not hesitate to support Taiwan. “In these difficult times, the United States knows that we will always have a friend in Taiwan,” he said.
Wu said he and his government had previously been in contact with officials from Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s election campaign to survey them on the future of relations with Taiwan.
“They said the United States is divided on all kinds of issues, but this one issue unites the United States and that is the Taiwan question,” he said. “They say Taiwan has been strongly supported on the hill (capital) on both sides of the aisle and Taiwan is supported by the Democratic and Republican Party. ”
Zhu, a professor at Bucknell University, said a long-term adversarial relationship between the United States and China was unsustainable after November given the number of international economic and security issues the two countries are facing. had to work together.
“I think Taiwan needs to think about it… what they’re doing now makes sense from their point of view, but is it in Taiwan’s long-term interest? ” he said.