As China Puts Pressure on Taiwan, Signs of a U.S. Pushback

Taiwanese sailors saluting their flag after military drills in January. President Trump signed legislation in September with a provision that encourages mutual port calls by ships from Taiwan and the United States.

BEIJING — As China ratchets up pressure on Taiwan, the self-governing island it claims as its territory, the United States is cautiously starting to push back.

In recent months, Chinese strategic bombers have been conducting “island encirclement” flights, escorted by fighter jets. The Chinese government has discouraged tourism to Taiwan and imports of goods like fish over the past year and a half, hurting its economy. And China persuaded the island’s most important remaining diplomatic ally, Panama, to switch diplomatic recognition last summer from Taipei to Beijing.

Concern about Taiwan’s fate now appears to be building slowly in Washington, even as President Trump continues to seek China’s help on other issues. Through his first year in office, Mr. Trump pressed Beijing to put more pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, with limited success. He has also sought to limit China’s nearly $400 billion trade surplus with the United States, which has nonetheless continued to widen.

Against that backdrop, Washington has recently begun moving gradually to reinforce its ties to Taiwan, a vigorous democracy facing an increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing.

Bills have been introduced in Congress to promote visits to Taiwan by warships and by civilian officials. A small gathering of defense contractors is planned for May to discuss Taiwan’s production of parts for weapons assembled in the United States. And in June, an American institute that functions as an informal diplomatic channel plans to open an elegant new complex in Taiwan’s capital.

“It looks like the Trump administration is playing the Taiwan card for whatever purpose — to put pressure or to seek concessions,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Chinese officials are showing signs of annoyance, and raising accusations that the United States is interfering in what Beijing considers one of its redline issues. “It is horrible that the present situation of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait will probably be turbulent,” said a commentary earlier this month on Huaxia, a Beijing-controlled news service on Taiwan issues.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Forces Committee after Senator John McCain of Arizona, is in Taiwan this week, leading a large delegation of House and Senate committee members and staff.

They have been meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen and her senior ministers, a dialogue likely to offend Beijing officials. In an emailed reply to questions, Senator Inhofe endorsed continued American support for Taiwan, including a bill pending in the Senate that would encourage senior administration officials to visit the island. The bill has already passed the House.

“With China becoming more aggressive and intent on expanding its influence globally, the United States-Taiwan security relationship is now more important than ever,” the senator said. “By ensuring they have the ability to defend themselves, Taiwan will continue to be an important part of promoting regional stability.”

President Trump signed separate legislation in December, bitterly opposed by Beijing, that included a provision encouraging mutual port calls by naval vessels from Taiwan and the United States. The president has long had the authority to order port calls and dispatch senior officials, so both measures are somewhat symbolic but nonetheless irritate China, said Richard C. Bush, a former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, which handles the United States government’s contacts with the island.

Two events coming up in Taiwan may further annoy Beijing.

One is a luncheon and meeting in southern Taiwan in early May for a handful of executives from American military contractors and their Taiwanese counterparts. They will discuss a proposal by President Tsai to develop Taiwan’s components industry by selling more parts to military contractors, said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the United States-Taiwan Business Council, the host of the event.

The development was initially reported by Taiwanese, mainland Chinese and Hong Kong news media as a decision to move a big annual military contracting conference from the United States to Taiwan, potentially triggering a further chasm between Beijing and the United States. But the business council, which has organized the much larger event since its inception 16 years ago, has consistently held it in the United States and plans to keep doing so, Mr. Hammond-Chambers said.

The other event that could trigger Sino-American disagreement is expected in mid-June. That is when the American Institute in Taiwan is scheduled to open a new complex of elegantly designed buildings in Taipei, the capital, consolidating operations that are currently scattered among several dilapidated sites around the city. The institute is staffed mainly by State Department employees and local workers.

There has been no suggestion that President Trump, who skipped the opening of the new American Embassy in London last month, would come to the Taipei event. Instead, the unanswered question is how senior an American official might attend.

The first Bush administration, the Clinton administration and the Obama administration all sent cabinet officials to Taipei at various times. But they chose the United States trade representative, the secretary of transportation and the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, rather than higher-profile officials like the secretary of state or the secretary of defense.

In each case, Beijing complained that the visits happened at all. Global Times, a nationalistic, Beijing-controlled newspaper, said earlier this month, “If any U.S. high-level official pays an official visit to Taiwan, Beijing will treat it as severe provocation and adopt all possible countermeasures, including uniting Taiwan by military force.”

President Xi Jinping has put more emphasis than his recent predecessors on China’s goal of eventual political unification of Taiwan with the mainland. During his 205-minute speech last October at the start of the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade national congress, Mr. Xi received his loudest, most enthusiastic applause — particularly from army generals in uniform among the delegates — when he declared, “We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”

Mr. Xi conspicuously failed to say, as past Chinese leaders sometimes have, that unification should be achieved by working with the people of Taiwan. But he did say that unification should be peaceful, and he did not mention a previous commitment by Beijing to use armed force should Taiwan ever declare formal independence.

Beijing officials have pursued a more confrontational policy toward Taiwan ever since Ms. Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president two years ago. Her party has a long history of favoring formal independence for Taiwan, although Ms. Tsai herself is a technocrat who has emphasized trying to strengthen the economy.

But Beijing officials have been biding their time about confronting Taiwan too publicly this year as they await the results of Taipei’s mayoral election in November. The race is likely to be closely contested by the Nationalist Party, which favors a more cooperative relationship with the mainland, and which Beijing officials are eager to see back in power in Taiwan.

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