Can Taiwan trust Trump? Island fears becoming pawn between superpowers

Story highlights

  • Fears that Trump is putting Taiwan in a precarious position
  • Legislator says island doesn't want to be part of zero sum game

Hong Kong (CNN)When Donald Trump accepted a phone call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, many Taiwanese were delighted at having a spotlight turned on their diplomatic isolation.

But that elation is turning to apprehension as the island risks becoming a pawn in a wider game between two superpowers.
    President-elect Trump suggested Sunday that US support for Taiwan was negotiable and the "one China" policy that has governed relations between the three governments for decades could be a source of leverage to force concessions from China on other issues.
    "Being the lever isn't a good place for Taiwan," said Joanna Lei, a former legislator who now heads the Chung Hua 21th Century Think Tank in Taipei.
    "China can't make a hasty move on the US or Donald Trump, but China can easily make a move on Taiwan," she said.
    "So if China is going to lean, which side are they going to lean on? Of course they will lean on Taiwan."
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    China has already stepped up air patrols around Taiwan and the wider region.
    On Saturday, Chinese military aircraft circled the international airspace surrounding Taiwan, prompting Japan's military to scramble fighter jets over an alleged trespass.
    And on December 7 and 8, China flew nuclear-capable bombers over its claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
    "Although all parties maintained their cool and avoided a clash, a war of nerves in the Asia-Pacific region is under way," the Taipei Times said in an editorial Tuesday.
    And Fitch, a ratings agency, has said that the risks of an economic shock to Taiwan were low but have risen.
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    Bargaining chip?

    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that President Barack Obama doesn't view the US relationship with Taiwan as a bargaining chip, and said that agreements on climate change and North Korea would be more difficult if that policy is changed.
    But Trump's comments in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" suggested that the incoming administration wouldn't be constrained by the "one China" policy.
    "I fully understand the 'one China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," Trump said.
    "I mean, look, we're being hurt very badly by China with devaluation, with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don't tax them, with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn't be doing, and frankly with not helping us at all with North Korea," he added.

    What's in it for Taiwan?

    Legislator Lo Chih-cheng, from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said Taiwan didn't want to become part of a "zero sum" game.
    "The very issue is whether Taiwan's interests will be served in Mr Trump's new policy," he told CNN's News Stream. "We are very concerned about what kind of things can be negotiated out of this US China relationship."
    Taiwan's presidential office has declined to comment.
    The Communist government in Beijing views Taiwan as a "renegade province," since Chinese nationalists fled there and established a government after losing the civil war in 1949.
    Both governments -- officially the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) -- claim to be the legitimate ruler of all of China, but the ROC effectively controls only Taiwan and a few other small islands.
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    China talks tough in editorial

    Trump unleashed a storm of controversy when he took a call from Taiwan's leader, President Tsai Ing-wen, earlier this month.
    Chinese officials were furious over the first conversation in decades between a Taiwanese leader and a US President or President-elect.
    China's response has been measured but clear.
    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Monday that co-operation with the US would be "out of the question" if Trump doesn't stick to the "one China" policy -- a cornerstone of bilateral relations since the establishment of diplomatic ties in the 1970s.
    The Global Times, a provocative but state-sanctioned tabloid, has been more scathing, calling Trump as "ignorant as a child in terms of foreign policy," and warning of stark consequences for Taiwan and the US.
    In an editorial published late Monday, it said China should consider the use of military force against Taiwan.
    "It will be a decisive battle for Beijing to safeguard its core interests. If Trump wants to play tough, China will not fail," the editorial said.
    "The strength gap between China and the US for the moment is the narrowest in history. What reason do we have to accept a most unfair and humiliating deal from Trump?"