Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will start a trip Saturday to the United States with the possibility of advancing relations with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump after a surprise call last month, and to Central American countries that could someday switch allegiance from Taipei to its powerful rival China.
The trip viewed at home as a test of Taiwan’s stable but fragile foreign relations in the Americas has raised alert in Beijing, which already protested the U.S. stopovers and is expected to react if Tsai shows new signs of getting close to Trump.
China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, not as a state entitled to foreign relations. It frets when the island’s leaders make inroads overseas.
Stops in Houston, San Francisco
Tsai has not said who she might contact while in Houston for about a day on her way to Central America or in San Francisco for about the same length of time en route home from her nine-day journey. She has ruled out no one.
The de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei - the American Institute in Taiwan - says Tsai’s stopovers, a courtesy Washington normally gives Latin America-bound Taiwan leaders, are for private business only.
Tsai probably hopes to contact people in the future administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump before he takes office January 20, observers say. She called Trump December 2 and spoke for 12 minutes.
“She will again have a chance to sit down with members of Congress of both parties, and, as she and all other Taiwan presidents have done in the past, she will again make phone calls to senior senators and representatives,” said Coen Blaauw, executive director of the Washington-based, pro-Taiwan advocacy group Formosan Association for Public Affairs.
“And the big unanswered question on everybody’s mind this time around is will a Donald Trump surrogate request to meet with her on or off record,” he said.
A stronger link with Trump following Tsai’s call to the U.S. president-elect last month could bring Taiwan more military exchanges with its staunchest informal ally and more access to advanced weapons for defense against China. Taiwanese leaders also want a free-trade deal that would help local exporters. Exports to the United States, Taiwan’s second biggest trading partner after China, were worth $48.5 billion in 2015.
Washington broke formal ties with Taiwan in 1979 in favor of the larger and faster-growing China.
A publicized encounter with Trump or with a transition team member might prompt China to show military might or offer aid money to win over more of Taiwan’s 21 remaining diplomatic allies, including the Central American countries Tsai plans to visit next week, analysts say.
Since the phone call, China has passed an aircraft carrier through waters near Taiwan and officials in Taipei suspect it paid Sao Tome and Principe, a country in Africa, last month to switch recognition to China.
Some Taiwanese also fear Trump might use closer relations with Taiwan as a bargaining chip to win trade concessions from China and sideline Taipei if the concessions come through. China says its claim over Taiwan is not negotiable.
Bolstering relations in Central America
The mostly poor countries in the Americas, Africa and the South Pacific that recognize Taiwan give it a voice in the United Nations in exchange for development aid. China has more than 170 diplomatic partners, including the world’s most powerful nations.
Tsai will visit El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua next week for meetings with heads of state. She plans to talk with Central American officials about projects they can do together and to see how people live.
“Of course some things have happened recently, but we think that basically the countries where we’re going count as stable,” Tsai told a news conference Saturday. “We will use the normal attitude to negotiate with those countries about what we can do together and carry out our foreign relations in a way in which both sides can obtain some substantive benefits.”
A Honduran diplomat in Taipei said Thursday he had heard of no urge to switch ties to China. The two sides may talk next week about working together on farming, fishing, tourism and infrastructure, he said.
Tsai must step up development aid to hold onto relations, said Huang Kwei-bo, associate diplomacy professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Tsai can offer money for specific projects, such as airports, rather than giving it directly to politicians to avoid the perception of checkbook diplomacy, he said.
The foreign minister said after the loss of Sao Tome and Principe that Taiwan would avoid “money diplomacy” with other governments.
“The achievement in her hands I think would be to provide more aid to the allies,” Huang said. “If you give them more humanitarian aid or more infrastructure development aid, that’s all a positive. Another plus is to show that Tsai Ing-wen at least is going to Central America. She meets their heads of states and for the time being those relations perhaps won’t change.”