US, Japan test Xi with Taiwan outreach ahead of Trump meet

Moves by Washington and Tokyo towards more-direct ties with Taipei set to irk China

HONG KONG • The United States and Japan are taking steps towards upgrading ties with Taiwan, risking a run-in with China as President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping prepare for a first meeting in Florida next week.

Tokyo and Washington have made a series of moves signalling more-direct relations with Taiwan, even after Mr Trump reaffirmed the US' longstanding policy recognising that both sides are part of "one China".

In the past week alone, Taiwan has seen its US envoy share a Washington stage with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and hosted a vice-minister from Japan.

Such exchanges could weigh on talks if the Mar-a-Lago summit goes ahead between Mr Xi and Mr Trump, who jolted ties last December by taking an unprecedented phone call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and openly questioned the "one China" policy.

Getting Mr Trump to reaffirm past policies on Taiwan would be a priority for Mr Xi in any summit, Dr Huang Jing, a professor of US-China relations at the National University of Singapore, told Bloomberg Television on Monday.

Mr Robert Lighthizer, Mr Trump's pick for trade representative, told senators overseeing his confirmation last week that he intended to "develop a trade-and-investment policy that promotes a stronger bilateral relationship with Taiwan".

China considers its sovereignty over Taiwan a "core interest" and is anxious for reassurances that Mr Trump would not alter US policy, sell the island more arms or establish direct military ties.

While Mr Trump has not said anything provocative about Taiwan since taking office, tensions between the island and China are running high because Ms Tsai's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party swept the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang from power last year.

Ms Tsai, who has angered Beijing by refusing to endorse the "one China" framework, has sought to bolster Taiwan's military and lower its trade dependence on China.

She told a banquet hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei last week that she wanted an "upgraded strategic relationship between our two countries".

Taiwan's de facto US ambassador Stanley Kao was among representatives from a 68-member anti-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) coalition invited to the US State Department on March 22.

On Monday, China's foreign ministry said it lodged a "serious" protest with Japan after Vice-Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama attended a cultural exchange meeting in Taiwan last Saturday.

On Jan 1, Japan also changed the name of its mission in Taipei to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, which could be seen as implying state-to-state relations.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said Japan's recent "provocative actions" regarding Taiwan have already caused "grave disturbances" to ties.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Mr Akama's visit represented "non-governmental, practical ties" and was not a break with practice.

Japan's move was probably "coordinated with Washington", said University of Miami's Professor June Teufel Dreyer. She said Mr Kao's attendance at the ISIS summit represented a "real, if tiny, step up in US-Taiwan relations".

Asked last week about Taiwan's participation in the ISIS summit, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US appreciated contributions from coalition members "big or small".

Mr Robert Lighthizer, Mr Trump's pick for trade representative, told senators overseeing his confirmation last week that he intended to "develop a trade-and-investment policy that promotes a stronger bilateral relationship with Taiwan".

The National Defence Authorisation Act signed by then President Barack Obama last December gave Mr Trump another way to upgrade Taiwan ties, since it would allow exchanges between senior military officials. Mr Trump could also deploy uniformed Marines at the yet-to-be completed American Institute in Taiwan complex, where plain-clothes troops have been stationed since 2005.

An arms sale to Taiwan could also test relations with China. A visit by then Defence Secretary Robert Gates was delayed for almost a year after the US announced a US$6.4 billion deal in 2010.

The Washington Free Beacon reported this month that the Trump administration was preparing to provide more and better defensive arms to the island.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2017, with the headline 'US, Japan test Xi with Taiwan outreach ahead of Trump meet'. Print Edition | Subscribe