United States President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will meet face to face for the first time Thursday local time at the former’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for discussions expected to reverberate for years beyond.
As usual with such summits, Taiwan is mindful that it will become one of the topics of conversation, with potential ramifications for its international status.
This time, Taiwan has been worried more than usual, mostly due to the new U.S. president’s unorthodox style and personality, but also because of Xi’s aggressive disposition on international affairs and his rough treatment of Taiwan since the country elected Tsai Ing-wen as its president last year.
Yet, at first sight, it looks like the possibility of a U.S.-China trade war and North Korea’s behavior will push Taiwan far down the list of topics for the two-day get-together.
As Trump recently tweeted, “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits … and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.”
Any hint of a trade war might in the long run also turn against Taiwan, causing collateral damage to its exporters and overseas manufacturers, though right now, the island is worried more about its sovereignty and basic national interests.
In the meantime, North Korea has also made itself heard through numerous missile launches and the brazen murder of leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother at a Malaysian airport, an incident which it blames on others.
As the Kim dynasty’s only if somewhat reluctant ally, Xi will face demands from Trump to help him restrain the vituperative North Korean leader.
There is also the issue of the South China Sea coupled with Chinese military expansionism, which according to some bears a strong resemblance to Japanese moves almost a century ago which led to Pearl Harbor.
However, this topic has lately faded somewhat into the background, with North Korea’s military adventurism coming to the fore as a much more immediate threat to regional stability.
As ever, Taiwan is right to closely watch developments at the summit, no matter whether or not it has been mentioned as part of the agenda.
President Trump’s reputation as someone likely to throw around big words and send off tweets, as well as his obvious lack of experience and connection with East Asia in general and Taiwan in particular, have worried many that he might just use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to obtain concessions from Beijing on issues like trade and North Korea.
The question is whether he will pay enough attention to his advisers from the traditional Republican right, sometimes denounced as neo-cons, who have been known to stand by Taiwan’s defense from Ronald Reagan through the Bush era and on to today.
Administration officials have been emphasizing in the days leading up to the summit that the U.S. will stand by its decades-old policies such as the Three Communiqués with China and the Taiwan Relations Act.
Rumors of a Fourth Communiqué wanted by Beijing which would make it binding for Washington to abide by a One China policy have been dismissed.
The famous phone call by President Tsai to the president-elect on December 2 raised hopes in Taiwan that the advent in Washington of a new genre of president would take the relationship to places it had never gone before, with some even hoping that Trump’s railings against China might lead him to drop the One China concept.
There are still reasonable expectations of a less timid attitude to weapons sales than under previous U.S. presidents, both for ideological and for trade reasons.
Whatever happens in Florida, American Institute in Taiwan Chairman James Moriarty is expected to visit the island soon to brief the administration of President Tsai on the contents of the summit.
While the Mar-a-Lago talks will give an indication of what kind of a climate we can expect in U.S.-Chinese relations, the actual weather will be dependent on what happens afterward. It remains to be seen whether Trump maintains his stated sympathy for Taiwan’s cause or whether Xi becomes the new Putin and establishes a more cordial relationship with the real estate tycoon.
The possibility that Taiwan turns into a bargaining chip, a fear present from the start, still persists. The Tsai Administration’s duty will be to keep a close eye on the Washington-Beijing relationship and maintain even closer and friendlier relationships with influencers and friends in the U.S. capital.