Taiwan lobbied to link up with Trump team before polls

US House Speaker Paul Ryan says it was 'prudent' for President-elect Donald Trump to take a 'congratulatory' phone call from Taiwan's leader.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has accepted Mr Trump's offer to be the US ambassador to China.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has accepted Mr Trump's offer to be the US ambassador to China.

Phone call with Tsai was result of direct contact with US leader's team, says Taiwanese official

Months before Mr Donald Trump was elected US president on Nov 8, Taiwan was already working behind the scenes, including hiring lobbyists, to set up links with the Trump team.

Those efforts culminated in last Friday's unprecedented phone call between President Tsai Ing-wen and the US President-elect that broke with nearly four decades of diplomatic protocol and sparked fears of a confrontation with China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province.

Presidential office spokesman Alex Huang, responding to media queries, confirmed yesterday that the call was the result of "direct contact with members of the Trump team", but declined to elaborate.

The New York Times reported on Monday that former Republican senator Bob Dole, now a lobbyist with Washington law firm Alston & Bird, helped set up a series of meetings between Trump advisers and Taiwanese government officials.

Citing documents filed with the United States Justice Department, the newspaper said the Taiwan government paid Mr Dole's firm US$140,000 (S$198,000) between May and October for its efforts. It also quoted Mr Dole, 93, as saying he worked with the Trump transition team to facilitate the phone call. "It is fair to say that we had some influence," he was quoted as saying.

But Mr Huang yesterday said it was inaccurate to link Mr Dole's lobby group with the call.

Analysts told The Straits Times they were not surprised by Taiwan's lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, saying it was the only way for Taiwan issues to get an airing in Washington, which switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

Said former deputy defence minister Lin Chong-pin: "Call it public relations or lobbying... this has been key to Taiwan's foreign policy and an important unofficial channel that Taiwanese diplomats have been cultivating for many, many years. It worked this time round."

Taiwan is known to hire an army of lobbyists in Washington whose job is to sway Congress or public opinion in favour of expanding ties with Taiwan. It reportedly engaged at least seven lobby groups in 2014, paying more than US$1.39 million.

 

Political news website Politico said Taiwan spends about US$2 million a year to hire lobbyists led by former Republican and Democratic lawmakers. It also said Taiwan provides funding to think-tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and Centre for Strategic and International Studies, both of which are home to prominent pro-Taiwan voices.

This support is further boosted by strong ties with Republicans, many of whom Professor Lin calls "souls who are sympathetic or empathetic to Taiwan".

They include Mr Reince Priebus, Mr Trump's White House chief of staff, and Mr Edward Feulner, who is on the Trump transition team and is the former president of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. Both men met Ms Tsai when they visited Taiwan as recently as October.

An editorial in the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece, asserted that Mr Trump has surrounded himself with people who subscribe to neo-conservatism and are highly suspicious of Beijing, heightening the uncertainty in Sino-US ties.

While some saw last Friday's phone call as a coup of sorts for Ms Tsai, many analysts said expectations should be tempered, as Mr Trump may recalibrate his policy towards Taiwan after taking office.

Said Professor Wang Kao-cheng, dean of the School of International Studies at Tamkang University: "He can say whatever he wants now but when he gets into office, he will show more restraint because whatever he does or says will have consequences. He is a practical man."

US media reports yesterday said Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, an old friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping, has accepted Mr Trump's offer to be US ambassador to China.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2016, with the headline 'Taiwan lobbied to link up with Trump team before polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe