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US elections 2020

China's 'red lines' on Taiwan in play as Biden challenges Trump

Island seeks to grow international presence while avoiding attack from Beijing

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, center, is flanked by U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Joe Biden, his opponent in next month's election. Taiwan has benefited from Trump's policies, but its public is divided on split on whether to support the incumbent or his challenger. (Source photos by Reuters) 

TAIPEI -- In December 2016, Donald Trump signaled a new tack in U.S.-Taiwan relations when he answered a call from President Tsai Ing-wen to congratulate him on his recent election win -- the first time since 1979 that a U.S. president or president-elect had directly spoken with his Taiwan counterpart.

This break of protocol angered China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory and forbids international recognition of the island under its "One China" policy. Taipei has taken advantage of the U.S.-China trade, tech and security tensions sparked by Trump, rising anti-Beijing sentiment globally, and has harnessed its success in taming the coronavirus pandemic to boost both its local economy and international relations.

With the presidential election less than a month away, it is unclear whether Taiwan and the U.S. will sustain closer cooperation in defiance of Chinese aggression should Trump's Democratic challenger Joe Biden enter the White House.

Official visits, weapons sales and moves toward a bilateral trade agreement with Washington under Trump have boosted the democratic self-ruled island's international standing. But crossing China's "red lines" risks retribution in the form of further diplomatic isolation, economic retaliation and military action.

Last month, a second high-level visit from a U.S. official to Taiwan in two months prompted China to fly 18 military aircraft across the sensitive midline on the Taiwan Strait, forcing Taipei to scramble fighter jets in response.

"Taiwan faces this challenge of wanting to strengthen its security, its economic prosperity, increase its voice in the international community, but at the same time, it does not want to risk an attack from China," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Taiwan will face these challenges regardless of who is elected president," she added.

"Even if it is just more pressure from China, which can come in many different forms, that is also something Taiwan pays a cost for," she told Nikkei Asia.

Anti-China sentiment, both stoked and exploited by Trump, has boosted support for Taiwan in the U.S.

People in the U.S., including in Congress, are more aware than ever of Taiwan's values, democracy and governance, Glaser said. "We really are at a high point in American support for Taiwan."

Washington occupies a "unique category" in the way it is willing to put its own interests at risk to support Taipei, Glaser said. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is obliged to help provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, though offers no official guarantees to intervene in the event of conflict.

Arms sales to Taiwan have been increased under Trump, reaching $12.42 billion. On top of that, a new $7 billion deal that features sea mines, missiles and drones -- sophisticated weaponry that Taipei needs to defend itself from an opponent with 10 times its military budget -- was reported last month. Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, presided over just $8.67 billion in arms sales to Taiwan during his tenure and scrapped a sale of F-16 jets in 2011.

Biden, meanwhile, used to be considered China-friendly. But during the election campaign, he has taken a tough stance against Beijing on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, pledged support for further sanctions over crackdowns on freedoms in Hong Kong and has painted Trump as the softer candidate on China.

Support for a Trump or Biden win is roughly split in Taiwan with various groups backing each candidate. A Newsweek survey conducted by London-based polling company Redfield & Wilton Strategies released in July found 29% of residents in Taiwan said they would prefer Biden to take office in November, while 26% chose Trump. Some 44% said they had no preferred candidate.

But the island traditionally favors Republican administrations as they are more bullish on weapon sales.

"Under a Biden presidency there may be different approaches, and some actions may be less visible, but Taiwan will remain an important partner for the United States," said Glaser.

"There is a factor here that we can't judge," Glaser said. "That is, how vulnerable is Xi Jinping on Taiwan, if he is seen as too soft, as not doing enough to protect sovereignty, could we force his hand?"

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen cheers during national day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei on Saturday.   © AP

Taiwan, a maker of some of the world's most sophisticated semiconductor chips, has done well out of the trade war. Export orders to both China and the U.S. have jumped as tariffs on both sides are causing a reshuffle in the global tech supply chain.

Taiwan's central bank projects the economy will grow by 1.6% this year, despite many other places slipping into a virus-induced recession.

"Taiwanese companies have the flexibility to adapt to new supply and demand situations," said Roy Chun Lee, deputy executive director of the WTO & RTA Center at the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research. Tsai has also secured $38 billion worth of investments since she pledged to lure companies back to the island in 2019 with government-backed loans and rent concessions.

"The safest way to react to the uncertainty [of the trade war] is to come back home or stay home," Lee said.

In August, Tsai eliminated a major hurdle to a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. by lifting a ban on certain pork and beef products containing ractopamine -- a controversial additive that enhances leanness. This invoked a domestic backlash over food safety.

A U.S. trade deal -- potentially one of Beijing's "red lines" -- could threaten economic ties with China, which accounts for more than 40% of Taiwan's total trade.

Benefits from closer U.S. ties were just "lip service," Chih-yung Ho, deputy director of the main opposition Kuomintang's Department of International Affairs, told Nikkei Asia. He warned Taiwan was becoming a "pawn between the major powers."

Economists also warn the benefits of a bilateral trade deal may be exaggerated as both the Taiwan and U.S. levy low tariffs on one another.

Biden favors multilateral agreements and would likely pursue rejoining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that Trump pulled out of on entering office in January 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts as former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, Ohio.   © AP

The Taiwanese government and many observers do not believe full-blown inter-strait conflict is imminent. But former top U.S. officials have painted a worst-case scenario in which China takes advantage of chaos following a contested U.S. election to invade the island.

Glaser said China's next provocative move might be to fly an aircraft directly over the island. Taiwan would have the right to down the plane as a defensive measure, potentially sparking a larger conflict. But ignoring the act would allow Beijing to continue aggressions with greater impunity.

Tsai has committed to avoiding conflict. "If Beijing can heed Taiwan's voice, change the way it handles cross-strait relations, and jointly facilitate cross-strait reconciliation and peaceful dialogue, I believe that regional tension can surely be resolved," she said in a speech to mark Taiwan's national day on Saturday.

"The onus of provocations is on China," explained Jessica Drun, a nonresident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. "Beijing has been escalating tensions with Taiwan since Tsai was elected -- even before her administration has deepened relationships with the United States and other Western countries."

"Building a strong economic network with countries like the United States deepens cooperation in all areas, making it harder for China to bully us militarily," Kolas Yotaka, Taiwan presidential office spokeswoman, told Nikkei Asia.

"Currently there is strong support on both sides of the aisle for strengthening Taiwan-U.S. cooperation, and we are confident that this trend will continue regardless of the outcome of this election," she said.

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