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Politics

Taiwan's Tsai seeks to make status quo last

President surprisingly sanguine about Trump's support for 'One China' policy

TAIPEI -- U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to maintain the official view of Taiwan and mainland China as one country went over surprisingly well in Taipei, underscoring President Tsai Ing-wen's pragmatic approach to foreign policy.

Trump's Feb. 10 phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping to honor the "One China" policy is beneficial for maintaining positive relations with Beijing and Washington, said Taiwanese presidential spokesman Alex Huang.

The call came just over two months after Trump spoke with Tsai on Dec. 2. Though it may seem as if Taiwan was cast aside, the reality of the situation is more complicated.

Taiwan's "core interest" is ensuring the sustainability of its freedom and democracy, Huang said, consciously echoing the term Beijing uses when talking about Taiwan and its goal of eventual unification. Though Taiwanese independence is in the platform of the Democratic Progressive Party led by Tsai, Beijing is likely prepared to quash any actual moves in this direction and forcibly bring Taiwan into the fold. Tsai's foreign policy is aimed at maintaining Taiwan's status as an effective democracy separate from mainland China.

Prior to his phone call with Xi, Trump hinted that the U.S. might consider changing course from its standing policy on China, seeming to suggest that Washington would support Taiwanese sovereignty. But this also posed the risk of disrupting the status quo.

Meanwhile, Beijing cranked up diplomatic pressure on Taipei, and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe in western Africa severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in December. Tsai had avoided directly siding with Trump, holding that the One China policy is for Washington to decide, to keep from provoking Beijing.

It should also be kept in mind that the U.S. has not abandoned Taiwan -- it has merely "returned to its previous stance," said Fan Shih-ping, a professor at National Taiwan Normal University.

Under the One China policy, the U.S. recognizes the People's Republic of China -- the government in Beijing -- as legitimate, and respects but does not endorse Beijing's view that Taiwan is an inalienable territory. This stance underlies the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that lets the U.S. sell weapons and provide defense services to Taiwan. Trump has not necessarily accepted the One China principle espoused by Beijing.

A December poll by Taiwan's CommonWealth magazine found that 48.4% of respondents support maintaining the cross-strait status quo, while 31.1% want independence as well as peaceful relations with mainland China, and only 10% or so favor unification. The public's desire to defend Taiwan's independence and sovereignty is tempered by a pragmatism that fosters support for Tsai's approach. For now, Taipei likely aims to promote stability by reinforcing relationships with the U.S. and Japan while seeking opportunities for dialogue with mainland China.

Yet how long this lull will continue remains unclear. Trump is unpredictable, and concerns linger that he will keep using Taiwan as a bargaining chip with mainland China, a DPP insider said. And calls are likely growing louder in Beijing for a harder line against Tsai's government, which does not support the One China principle. The annual National People's Congress starting March 5 will offer the first clear hint as to how mainland China will handle the issue.

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