Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has risked Beijing’s wrath by remarking that her trip to Central America via the U.S. has allowed “Taiwan to walk on the international stage,” just a day after President-elect Donald Trump reiterated that American recognition of the "one China" principle was up for negotiation.
China and Taiwan effectively split in 1949 following a civil war, though Beijing considers the self-governing island of 25 million a breakaway province with which it must one day be reunified — by force if necessary. Chinese officials are extremely wary of any statement — like Tsai's — that might give the impression that Taiwan is an independent nation.
"Our first objective [of this trip] was to consolidate our state friendships and allow Taiwan to walk on the international stage," Tsai said at Taipei International Airport on Sunday night, according Reuters.
Tsai had already angered China by last month by speaking on the phone with Trump, marking the first direct contact between the leaders of the U.S. and Taiwan since Washington severed diplomatic relations with Taipei in favor of Beijing in 1979.
Since winning the presidential election, Trump has also repeatedly questioned the “one China” policy agreed between Beijing and a previous Taiwan government. Otherwise known as the 1992 Consensus, this states that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to the same nation, even if their leaderships disagree on what the legitimate government of that nation is. Tsai, however, belongs to a political party that does not recognize the consensus and has historically favored formal independence.
On Saturday, China's Foreign Ministry responded to Trump’s latest remarks regarding Taiwan in a Wall Street Journal interview by saying that the "one China" principle was the “nonnegotiable” lynchpin of Sino-U.S. relations. It urged the President-elect to recognize the sensitivity of the Taiwan question. The Chinese Communist Party–linked Global Times newspaper went further by describing Trump’s wavering over Taiwan's status as “despicable” in an editorial.
Beijing has long striven to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, vetoing its membership to the U.N. or potentially lucrative free-trade groupings. After São Tomé and Príncipe switched its allegiance to Beijing last month, there are now only 21 nations that recognize Taiwan — mainly small Central American and Caribbean states.
Chinese officials had called for Tsai to be barred from transiting though the U.S. on her way to Central America. The U.S. government refused, however, and Tsai even met senior Republican lawmakers such as Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Greg Abbott in Houston during her stopover.
However, there are signs that growing cross-strait tensions are hurting Taiwan's economy. Chinese visitors to Taiwan have dropped by about a third over the past few months, and many Chinese provinces have nixed educational exchange programs. Beijing has also started rattling its saber, sending military aircraft over a channel adjacent to Taiwan and sailing an aircraft carrier fleet into the Taiwan Strait last week.
Tsai’s personal approval rating has also taken a battering, with more Taiwan citizens now disapproving of her than approving. Around 40% of Taiwan’s exports go to the mainland, and many in Taiwan fear the economic fallout of worsening relations with China, especially as Trump simply appears to be using Taiwan to leverage concessions from Beijing.
“President Tsai has to be very careful,” says Professor Rana Mitter, a China specialist at Oxford University. “[Trump] has never talked about democracy or taking liberal American values around the world. He’s only ever talked about putting America first.”