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“No room for bargaining”

Why China is so rattled over Taiwan leader’s visit to Houston

China’s state-run paper threatens “revenge” if Trump supports Taiwan’s independence

China delivered yet another stern warning to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Sunday night, saying in the state-run Global Times tabloid that it would “take revenge” if the incoming president abandoned its decades-old “One China” policy toward Taiwan.

The latest threat was delivered in an editorial in the tough-talking Times, which is no stranger to bluster, on the subject of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s stopover visit in the U.S. when she met with high-ranking Republicans, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, en route to a diplomatic tour of Central America.

“If Trump reneges on the One China policy after taking office, the Chinese people will demand the government take revenge,” read the editorial in the influential paper, which is controlled by the ruling Communist Party but does not reflect official government policy.

“There is no room for bargaining.”

Such unofficial “transit” visits have become a regular feature of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan in the decades since Washington’s seismic 1979 shift to diplomatically recognize mainland China over Taiwan. A fundamental tenet of the U.S.-China relationship is Washington’s recognition of the “One China” principle that asserts that Taiwan is part of the same Chinese nation as the mainland, precluding official state-to-state interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan.

Despite honoring China’s official policy, the U.S. and Taiwan have enjoyed “a robust unofficial relationship,” with the U.S. remaining Taiwan’s key international ally.

Tsai’s visit was particularly sensitive in the wake of Trump’s surprise phone call with the Taiwanese leader shortly after his November election win, which shattered decades of diplomatic protocol, and his subsequent comments questioning U.S. commitment to “One China.”

Ahead of Tsai’s visit, the Chinese consulate sent letters to U.S. politicians urging them to “uphold the ‘One China policy’” and not meet the Taiwanese leader, said Cruz, in a statement explaining why he had ignored the request.

Cruz described the Chinese consulate’s letter as “curious,” and delivered a blunt message to Beijing.

“The People’s Republic of China needs to understand that in America we make decisions about meeting with visitors for ourselves,” he said. “This is not about the PRC. This is about the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, an ally we are legally bound to defend.”

Tsai also met with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who tweeted a picture of their meeting, and spoke with Sen. John McCain, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, over the phone, Reuters reported.

“There’s a long history of them complaining of these kinds of visits, but this time the context makes it particularly difficult,” said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. “It’s not surprising that they’ve been responding in this pushy way.” 

Brown said that unofficial stopover visits, which began in the mid-’90s, had become the only way Taiwan could conduct diplomatic visits to the U.S, but added that meeting with high-profile politicians like Cruz is “icing on the cake” for Taiwan.

The Taiwanese president’s visit was the latest temperature-raising move amid simmering tensions over the incoming administration’s stance towards China, following a series of provocative statements by the president-elect. Besides his controversial phone call with Tsai, Trump regularly railed against Beijing on the campaign trail, attacking the country over currency and tax issues as well as its military actions in the South China Sea. Recently Trump accused China of stealing a U.S. underwater drone that was subsequently returned.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang urged U.S. officials to handle the Taiwan issue appropriately to avoid damaging bilateral relations.

“We firmly oppose leaders of the Taiwan region, on the so-called basis of a transit visit, having any form of contact with U.S. officials and engaging in activities that interfere with and damage China-U.S. relations,” Lu said.

Tsai’s meeting with high-level Republicans this weekend will be read as a yet another victory for Taiwan and a blow for China.

“It’s a pretty nifty piece of attention-grabbing,” Brown said. “This gives Taiwan a profile, it creates the impression that Taiwan is like a country and has its own international space — that Beijing doesn’t want it to have.”

Beijing is particularly wary of Tsai, who assumed office in May last year, suspecting she may want to push for formal independence.

Preventing such a move is China’s “top national security priority,” said Kristian McGuire, a Washington-based research analyst and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research.

“As questions swirl about President-elect Donald Trump’s intentions for U.S. policy toward Taiwan, I think China’s leadership wants to make it abundantly clear to the incoming administration and Congress that it considers Taiwan as important as ever,” he said.

“China’s leadership was perhaps worried that if they did not pull out all the stops to display their concern, their sub-optimal response might be misinterpreted by the U.S. as a slackening of resolve.”

Brown offered a similar observation, saying that for Beijing, the main concern was setting a precedent for both Taiwan and the incoming administration. “When’s it going to stop? I think they’re nervous that this might become expected,” said Brown. “They don’t want to allow the Americans to think this is something they can do all the time.”

Tsai is scheduled to stop over in San Francisco on her return trip on Friday.

Cover: (REUTERS/James Nielsen)

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