Beijing has found Tsai especially threatening and has treated her with hostility. That makes the prospect of negotiations to tamp down cross-strait tensions more unlikely. Xi has set up preconditions for talks between the two governments—including an acceptance of the “one country, two systems” formula used (unsuccessfully) in Hong Kong—that Tsai has rejected. “We certainly hope that the Chinese will see, also, the need to engage Taiwan for the sake of peace and stability in this region,” Wu said. But, he added, “I don’t see that the opportunity for the discussions, the engagement, between the two sides will come in the near future.”
Now toss Trump into this bubbling cauldron. His administration’s shift to a more confrontational stance against Beijing has been both positive and negative for Taiwan. On the one hand, Washington has very publicly ratcheted up support for Taiwan: In August, Trump dispatched Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Taipei, the highest-level American official to visit Taiwan in more than four decades. Azar’s arrival infuriated China’s leaders, who consider such delegations trespassers in their own backyard. Two of Beijing’s military exercises near Taiwan were timed to recent visits by American officials. The rising tensions have also increased the chances that Taiwan will get dragged into an unexpected or unintended flare-up between the two powers—for instance, in their square-off in the South China Sea.
But Trump has made the most impact with what he hasn’t done—firmly uphold the U.S.-led global order. The concern over Taiwan is a by-product of the doubts Trump has fomented in foreign-policy circles about America’s resolve to stand by its global commitments. He has established a lengthy track record of reneging on agreements, disparaging international institutions, and bickering with allies.
Thomas Wright: Taiwan stands up to Xi
In the case of Taiwan, the question is more urgent. Would Trump defend the island? In the past, Chinese leaders had to assume that starting a war with Taiwan equaled starting a war with the U.S., but the answer to that question now is more uncertain. Trump’s “unpredictable leadership can make things harder for Beijing, but it can also make things easier for Beijing,” Davidson’s Rigger said. “If you look at the pattern of the Trump administration, there is reason for people in China to think they can get it done now. That this is the time.”
Some of these risks are short-term. As the Chinese economy recovers, the domestic political pressure on Xi is easing. Trump could be out of office in three months, and a new Joe Biden administration may reinvigorate America’s Asian alliances, and reduce the uncertainty over U.S. intentions.
But the tensions over Taiwan are unlikely to abate. Relations between the U.S. and China will almost certainly remain sour, whoever lives in the White House. Trump may have done irreparable damage to the U.S.-led order, and his political movement will persist beyond the November election. Taiwan will not concede to Beijing’s demands. And Xi will remain the fiery nationalist. Whether the aim is war or not, Xi’s treatment of Taiwan is part of a more assertive, more aggressive set of policies both at home and abroad. Wu linked Beijing’s increased hostility toward Taiwan to its tempestuous border dispute with India, its crackdown on the prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong, and its detention of untold numbers of minority Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang region.