Taiwan is caught in the middle of a dangerous love triangle. Last week Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was welcomed to New York.
Now she’s about to land in California, where she will be feted with a face-to-face meeting with the speaker of the US House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy.
The timing is hardly a coincidence. In the US there is deep and growing hostility to China. And this is driving ever more open displays of support for Taiwan, with Democrats and Republicans competing to out-do each other.
It’s a big reason former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was so keen on landing in Taipei last summer, despite the fact that it set off a furious reaction from China. The self-governed island, which Beijing claims as part of its territory, is arguably the biggest flashpoint between the US and China.
“I was personally very opposed to the Pelosi visit,” says professor William Stanton, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan. “For a high-level politician from the US to make a visit to the island was just poking China without much reward. And the consequences were quite scary.”
Chinese missiles flew over the island as Beijing made blood-curdling threats. In capitals around the region governments began talking seriously about the timetable for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Despite that, as soon as he was elected house speaker this January, Mr McCarthy, a Republican, declared his intention to follow Ms Pelosi’s example. But President Tsai decided that was not a good idea, Prof Stanton says.
“I think it was quite clear that Kevin McCarthy wanted to pull a Pelosi,” he says. “But Tsai Ing-wen said, ‘no thank you, how about we have tea together in California instead’.”
President Tsai may not want another contentious visit by a US leader to Taiwan just yet – but she also needs to show China that it will not succeed in shutting down contact between a democratically-elected government in Taipei and its most powerful ally in Washington.
And so, the meeting in California. Mr McCarthy has far from downplayed it, calling the meeting “bipartisan”, despite China’s warning that the US was “playing with fire on the Taiwan question”.
This so-called “transit diplomacy” is crucial for Taiwan, says Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University.
Over the years, China has successfully poached many of Taiwan’s formal allies, whittling down the number of governments that recognise Taipei to just 13.
“These international visits match Taiwan society’s needs for international recognition,” Mr Sung says. “When there’s an absence of international recognition, these other proxy indicators of international support are important to [the] Taiwanese.”
Meanwhile the Communist Party of China has mounted its own charm offensive, by inviting President Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, to tour the mainland.
Mr Ma went on an unprecedented five-city tour, ostensibly to pay homage to his ancestors. He has indeed visited their graves in central China. But the trip is also political. In fact, it’s the first time a former president of Taiwan has ever been invited to the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949.
“Beijing is trying to soften the tone towards Taiwan… winning more hearts and minds, and also avoiding a surge of Taiwanese nationalism during the  presidential campaign,” Mr Sung says.
Mr Ma’s visit, he adds, provided the necessary “political cover” to do that.
When he landed in Nanjing last week, Mr Ma made a strikingly political speech: “The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese. And both are descendants of the Yan and Yellow Emperors.”
“Beijing is being nice to Ma Ying-jeou because he represents capitulation,” Prof Stanton says. “He says ‘we are all Chinese’. That’s something he and the Chinese agree on, but it’s not something the Taiwanese agree on.”
The risk in Mr Ma’s strategy is that more than 60% of Taiwan’s residents, according to surveys, describe themselves as Taiwanese, and not Chinese.
But there could also be a reward waiting in the wings. Surveys show that more than half of Taiwan believes war with China is now likely. And Mr Ma’s aim is to convince Taiwanese voters that only his party – the Kuomintang (KMT) – can avoid that war, Mr Sung says.
“It’s about cementing his legacy as the bridge between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. And on a domestic political level Taiwan is starting its presidential campaign. The KMT argument is that we can bring peace with China.”
But the elephant in the room is the deteriorating relationship between Taiwan’s two suitors – Washington and Beijing. That relationship is worse today than at any time since the US and China officially recognised each other in 1979, says Bonnie Glaser, head of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“They [Beijing] are not taking calls from President Biden or the Pentagon. Congress has declared China an existential threat,” she says.
For decades Washington has managed a rather delicate status quo, acknowledging, if not supporting, Beijing’s position that there is only one Chinese government – the one on the mainland. It has maintained official ties with that government, and not Taiwan, since 1979. But it has also remained a steadfast ally to Taipei, guaranteeing to help the island defend itself.
But the fear is that China now believes that the US is set on changing the status quo which has helped keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait for the last 40-odd years.
“President Biden told Xi Jinping he is not using Taiwan as a weapon, that he does not support the separation of Taiwan from China,” Ms Glaser says.
But such assurances are unlikely to amount to much in the wake of contentious state visits or official meetings with Taiwan’s leaders, she adds.
So while Mr Ma tours China and Ms Tsai has tea in California, what Taiwan also needs is for Mr Xi to pick up the phone.
Source : BBC