August 21, 2018

IntelBrief: The U.S. and the One China Policy

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen answers to press during a media event at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying).
  • On August 13 and 18, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen made ‘transit stops’ in Los Angeles and Houston, at a time of increasing U.S.-China tensions.
  • Since 1979, the U.S. has refused to officially recognize Taiwan in order to maintain good relations with China.
  • Chinese inflexibility on the matter of Taiwan has led it to pressure airlines to refrain from listing Taiwan as a destination apart from China.
  • U.S. recognition of Taiwanese independence is one of enormous consequence and the Chinese are likely to force the issue at some point.


On August 19, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wenmade an official visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas, the first time a leader of Taiwan has visited a U.S. federal government facility in an official capacity. The visit took place during a ‘transit stop,’ in this case a semantical phrase used to mask a true policy meeting or event. This is typical of a great deal of U.S.-Taiwan relations.

It is difficult to overstate the sensitivity with which China views the issue of Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen’s ‘transit stop,’ as well as a similar stop in Los Angeles on August 13, is sure to provoke a fierce Chinese response. There has already been a backlash against the parent company of 85C, a Taiwanese coffee chain that Tsai Ing-wen visited in Los Angeles; the company’s stock has cratered and forced an official corporate apology.The issue is far larger than economic pressure on companies that ‘legitimize’ the independence of Taiwan—pressure which includes going after airlines that list Taiwan as a distinct destination apart from China. China considers Taiwan a province over which it will eventually regain control.

China is filling the void of superpower created by an increasingly inward-looking United States, using its not-so-soft power economically through infrastructure investments and debt as leverage to expand influence in Africa and Asia. It is also asserting its military power in what it considers its historic territorial waters, regardless of international laws and judgements. But Chinese concerns over its territorial claims in the South China Sea pale in comparison to Taiwan.

While President Trump had made positive statements about his ‘friendship’ with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he has recently soured on the overall relationship, mostly because of trade issues. On August 18, President Trump tweeted ‘All of the fools that are so focused on looking only at Russia should start also looking in another direction, China.’ Rhetorically and with respect to trade, the president is moving the U.S. from viewing China as an economic rival to something perhaps more akin to a geopolitical foe.

The pivot is not surprising. As candidate Trump, he railed against what he perceived as ‘terrible’ trade deals made by his predecessors that only benefited China; he was clear to say he did not hold China at fault for taking advantage of those deals. As President-Elect, he took a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president, a move that infuriated China but also made clear that as president, Trump might move closer to the long-standing congressional affinity for Taiwan and away from the choreographed state-craft of having close ties with Taiwan without officially recognizing it. It is unclear how far President Trump will move the U.S. toward more open relations with Taiwan; such a step would be no small affair. A more openly Taiwan-friendly U.S. would significantly add to the already sizable tensions between the world’s two largest economies and militaries.


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