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Is Trump using Taiwan as a China bargaining chip?

Following surprise phone call, officials ask whether president-elect is looking to increase leverage

by: Geoff Dyer in Washington

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Three days after Donald Trump’s surprise phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, Washington officials are still deciphering what it means. Here are the four main questions.

Is Trump preparing to shred US policy on Taiwan?

That depends who you ask. Vice-president elect Mike Pence said on Sunday that the conversation was nothing more than a “courtesy call”. Anthony Scaramucci, an aide to Mr Trump, said on Monday that “this is not a deviation in US policy”.

But Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to Mr Trump, insisted that Taiwan deserved greater American support because of its democratic system. “We oughta back our ally, and if China doesn’t like it, screw ‘em,” he told a radio station on Monday.

Mr Trump has tried to have it both ways. Initially playing down the call, on Sunday he linked it to Chinese policies on currency and the military build-up in the South China Sea.

Why would Trump want to change Taiwan policy?

Influential voices in conservative foreign policy circles have long called for the US to do more to support Taiwan.

They argue that it is China and not the US that has changed the status quo. A large part of China’s military build-up over the last two decades has been focused on preventing the US from intervening in a crisis over Taiwan — as it did in 1996. China has also stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically.

The call “is a good start in restoring some balance to the relationship between the US, China and Taiwan”, says Daniel Blumenthal, a China specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Mr Trump’s inner circle has strong Taiwan connections. Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, has visited Taiwan twice in recent years, and Ed Feulner, the former president of Heritage, the conservative think-tank who is on the transition team, visited the island after the election.

Is the Taiwan move part of Trump’s “art of the deal”?

The other argument in Trump circles about the Taiwan call is that it was designed to establish more leverage over China. “He wants to negotiate a new deal with China. Obviously this call does what he said he is going to do. He wants to shake up China,” Michael Pillsbury, a former Pentagon official who has been advising the Trump team, told CNN on Monday.

But that is a gambit that carries its own risks. China has never renounced the use of force to settle the status of Taiwan. The danger is that Beijing reacts more aggressively if Mr Trump starts to take tough actions on trade, as he promised in the campaign. “It is a bit like using a baseball to swat a fly,” says Michael Auslin at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you want to get more leverage, I am not sure you achieve it by grabbing the third rail of Chinese politics.”

How will China react?

So far, China has decided on a wait-and-see approach. But there are plenty of things it could do if it thought a Trump administration was trying to move the goalposts on Taiwan.

Aside from Chinese military exercises around the island, Taiwanese executives could start to encounter problems in obtaining work permits in China or find their products being held up at Chinese ports. Beijing could quietly decline to implement the new sanctions on North Korea agreed at the UN last week.

One flashpoint could come next month when Ms Tsai is expected to transit in the US, according to the Taiwanese press, on her way back from a trip to Latin America. Beijing will be on edge for anything that seems at odds with diplomatic protocol. “Personnel is policy” is the daily motto of a Washington transfixed by the drama of the presidential transition: but when it comes to Taiwan, it is protocol that is policy.

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