KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- Taiwanese and U.S. defense industry executives gathered here on Thursday for a first-of-its-kind conference that shows President Tsai Ing-wen's desire for closer ties with Washington at a time when Beijing is whittling away at the island's diplomatic partners.
There is an opportunity for the U.S. and Taiwan to cooperate, Robert Laing, Lockheed Martin's director of business development for the Asia-Pacific region, said at the inaugural Taiwan-U.S. Defense Business Forum.
Besides Lockheed, representatives from other leading defense contractors like Raytheon and the U.S. arm of U.K.-based BAE Systems were among the more than 300 participants.
The U.S. and Taiwan do not have diplomatic ties, but the annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference has provided an opportunity for dialogue through the private sector. This is the first year a related event is being held in Taiwan.
Past American administrations were careful to manage the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a province under the "One China" principle and a "core" interest. But President Donald Trump sees the island as a potential bargaining chip in trade disputes with President Xi Jinping. Trump also wants to increase U.S. arms sales to Taiwan to appeal to voters at home ahead of the midterm elections in November.
U.S.-Taiwan relations are now "the closest they have been since diplomatic ties were cut in 1979," said professor Fan Shih-ping at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.
In April, the Trump administration allowed American companies to sell Taiwan technology necessary for building submarines. Lockheed and Raytheon both possess competitive underwater combat systems that could contribute to Tsai's push to build homegrown submarines to defend against Beijing.
Some in Taiwan worry about being used by the U.S. But in an interview last month, Tsai said that while many consider Taiwan a "pawn," it is also "a chess player" itself, suggesting that she is aware of the risks associated with advancing Taiwan's interests.
Since taking office in 2016, Tsai has toned down her pro-independence views and sought a dialogue with the mainland. But Beijing has only ratcheted up the pressure, convincing three countries to switch their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in less than two years. This has caused Taipei to lean more toward Washington.
China worries that Taiwan is growing too close to the U.S. Any attempt to "play the Taiwan card" will be futile, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of China's State Council, said last month. He also warned that those in Taiwan eager to take advantage of the U.S.-China trade dispute will "smash their own feet." As a further warning, China conducted a live-fire drill in the Taiwan Strait on April 18.
Since the end of last year, Trump has signed acts to consider re-establishing port-of-call exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan navies, and to encourage more visits by officials from both governments. There is also speculation that U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton will visit Taiwan in June.