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Taiwan fears getting caught between US and China

Taiwan fears getting caught between the US and China as President-elect Donald Trump threatens a tougher approach toward Beijing and the Chinese government intensifies its sabre-rattling in the region.

Politicians and analysts in Taiwan believe that Beijing is stepping up pressure on the self-governing and democratic island, which China claims is its territory, because of actions taken by Mr Trump.

On Monday, the Chinese navy sailed its only aircraft carrier just 90 nautical miles from the coast of Taiwan, not long after the Chinese military flew a bomber capable of carrying nuclear weapons close to the edge of Taiwanese territory and the Chinese navy snatched a US naval submarine drone in the South China Sea.

Mr Trump upset Beijing by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen – the first such high-level contact for decades – and then questioning the “One China” principle under which most of the world rejects diplomatic ties with Taipei.

“China is very angry about losing face, so it is picking on Taiwan as a scapegoat,” said Lo Chih-cheng, a legislator and foreign policy expert from Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party. “The lesson we learn is that US policy toward Taiwan is a function of US-China policy, so we have to be very careful, whether the US takes a more confrontational or a more friendly approach to China.”

Beijing has tightened its squeeze on Taiwan since Ms Tsai took office in May because it is unhappy with her party’s insistence that Taiwan should maintain its de facto independence and reduce its economic reliance on China.

The lesson we learn is that US policy toward Taiwan is a function of US-China policy, so we have to be very careful

Politicians from the opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalist party, which promoted closer links with China under previous president Ma Ying-jeou, have attacked the DPP for upsetting Beijing at a delicate time in the US-China relationship.

“The DPP is unbalanced in its foreign policy,” said Lin Yu-fang, a national security expert at the KMT’s think-tank and a former legislator. “They want to make one elephant happy and the other angry but that’s very dangerous for Taiwan because China is the biggest market for our goods and the US is the only nation willing to sell us weapons.”

Lin Chu-chia, another KMT policy adviser and a former deputy minister in charge of relations with China, said that many Taiwanese people want to see Mr Trump push back against Beijing’s assertive behaviour.

But they worry that the US president-elect will merely use Taiwan as a “bargaining chip” to get concessions from China on trade and other bilateral issues.

“We want a consistent policy,” said Lin Chu-chia. “If the Americans say they’ll support us without limit in the military sense, we’d be happy.”

Huang Kuo-chang, a legislator from the New Power Party, said Taiwan will have to be “patient and prudent” until Mr Trump’s stance becomes clearer after he takes office next month.

“I fully support our government strengthening relations with the US government but it is too early to tell which way the Trump administration will go,” said Mr Huang, whose party grew out of a student movement opposed to deeper trade with China.

He warned that, whatever Mr Trump does, Chinese pressure on Taiwan would backfire in this democracy of 23m people.

“The direction is not set by Ms Tsai and the DPP but by the Taiwanese people, and the Taiwanese people don’t like to be threatened,” he said.

But Taiwanese people are increasingly nervous about Beijing’s approach.

“Not many people believe it’s safe for us to become formally independent because we’re scared of China,” said Alice Hung, a science student at the National Taiwan University. “If they really want to attack us, what can we do?”

Via FT