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When Trump is flirting with Taiwan, 85℃ suffers

Taiwanese people want bread from mainland as the economy of the island increasingly depends on the mainland, but they are not switching loyalty to Beijing as the two sides are poles apart in their political systems, ideology and way of life. For Taiwan's buoyant democracy, the 85℃ incidence will be cited as another evidence of Beijing's coercive power at the detriment to those cozying up to the mainland. For Trump, He may be warming to Taiwan because he feels Taiwan is intertwined with America’s core national interests as part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy and its role as a bridgehead in upholding democratic values and freedom, but even the slightest signs of encouragement for Taiwan’s independence would step on the toes of Beijing and Taiwan’s companies or economy were bound to be the first to suffer from the backlash.

Taiwan's pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen caused a big stir by delivering a political speech and visiting a Taiwanese cafe chain 85℃ during her transit in Los Angeles. Tsai’s speech has been the first of its kind in 15 years and her transit through the US was viewed as a breakthrough facilitated by the new Taiwan Travel Act. She was to move on from Los Angeles en route on a diplomatic tour to attend the inauguration ceremony of Paraguay's president, one of the dwindling number of countries still maintaining diplomatic ties with the self-ruled island.

Tsai tried to keep a low profile of the visit, nonetheless her stopover at 85℃ has been not without controversy. Pictures of  85℃ staff giving Tsai a gift bag with her name on it went viral on Chinese's social media with many condemning the chain for making heft amount of revenue on Chinese mainland while supporting Taiwan independence. The branch of the company operating its mainland business soon issued a statement clarifying sending the gift bag was purely a personal behavior of its staff, and affirmed its support for "One China" principle. The company also says it opposes any behavior and remarks that divide the feelings of the compatriots on the two sides and it will serve customers under the belief that the two sides are of the same family.

However, the statement failed to quell the combustive mainland netizens who have further dug out the past food safety scandals involving the cafe chain. Major food ordering apps like Ele.me, Meituan, have also delisted 85℃  from their ordering pages. The statement not only failed to appease mainlanders, but also made the company suffer a double whammy by triggering backlash in Taiwan where people were infuriated by the company's bow to the mainland pressure.

The latest incidence in cross-strait ties has highlighted an awkward fact that the people on the two sides of the strait are falling further apart. When relations are good, Taiwanese businessmen are favored by mainland customers due to the compatriot complex, which regards Taiwan as an inalienable part of China. But as the political and ideological divide widens, Taiwan independence gains traction, frustrating their mainland counterparts and putting Taiwanese companies on the mainland on the grill. Many Taiwanese businessmen who used to enjoy a competitive edge now find themselves confronted with a political choice to make, and it seems inevitable that they will be either offending the pro-independence people in Taiwan or the vast masses of mainlanders who were eager to see the reunification of China.

Beijing's iron fist

Ever since President Tsai came into office, Beijing has sought to screw up its political pressure on the island, hoping that Tsai would accept the 1992 consensus which acknowledged there is only one China albeit having different interpretations by the two sides. Due to Tsai's staunch opposition, Beijing decided to halt any official cross-strait dialogue and tried to influence the island by circumventing or isolating Tsai's administration, such as granting favorable policies to lure Taiwan's talents. Internationally, Beijing has stepped up efforts on international institutions and Taiwan's few diplomatic allies to break away from the island through its economic clout. Beijing has also flexed its military muscles and stepped up naval exercises and air patrols over the strategically important Taiwan Strait. China’s higher military profile includes escorted bomber “encirclement flights” and the recent deployment of an aircraft carrier off Taiwan.

For Beijing, there is a strong motive to rein in the wayward Taiwan by force. By controlling Taiwan, China would gain direct access to the western Pacific and extend its influence in disputed areas of the East and South China seas, where it is establishing military bases on reclaimed land. But the quandary is as Beijing becomes more and more aggressive across the strait, Taiwan people are grappling with an entanglement of hate and love, they want to reap economic benefit from the world's second largest economy but they are irked by the political agenda Beijing wants to impose on them. Or in their words, they want bread or make money from mainland but there is no emotional attachment, not to mention switching loyalty to Beijing as the two sides are poles apart in their political systems, ideology and way of life. For Taiwan's buoyant democracy, the 85℃ incidence will be cited as another evidence of Beijing's coercive power, which will unfortunately work in favor of those pro-independence separatists, yet at the detriment to those cozying up to the mainland.

Trump's high-stake game of cards

Soon after his election, Trump infuriated and unnerved Beijing by questioning Washington’s long-standing commitment to the “One China” policy which underpins US-China relations by breaking decades of diplomatic protocol to have a telephone conversation with Tsai.

To add fuel to the fire, Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, whose expressed purpose is to encourage bilateral official exchanges with Taiwan “at all levels”. He also signed The National Defense Authorization Act which opens the door to bigger arms deals and allows for the possibility of mutual visits by navy vessels between Taiwan and the US.

Since Kuomintang's retreat to Taiwan, the island has been dependent on the US military protection. Through the Taiwan Relations Act, the US maintained substantial arms supply to the island. A US State Department spokesperson recently called for Taiwan to increase its military budget to a “level that corresponds to the security challenges it is faced with”.

Some have suggested that Trump, with his business background and emphasis on America first, is simply using Taiwan as leverage to extract more concessions from China on trade – rather than for any geopolitical or ideological reasons. According to their argument, while friction over trade and Taiwan are two separate issues, they can be seen as different sides of the same coin when it comes to US-China relations.

This argument may be applicable to not only trade issue, if Trump is indeed acting more like a shrewd businessman, then China has more bargain chips to trade with the US, such as contentious issues regarding North Korea, Iran, or even Syria, as long as Trump refrains from crossing Beijing’s red line by making any major policy change on Taiwan. Trump needs to be clear-minded about what is off limit to Beijing, especially at a time when strongman-like leader Xi has prioritized national reunification on his agenda.

But there’s another scenario, in which Trump isn’t trading off the island in a high-stake game of cards aimed at winning trade or other strategic advantages. He may be warming to Taiwan because he feels Taiwan is intertwined with America’s core national interests as part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy network and its role as a bridgehead in upholding democratic values and freedom. But in the eyes of the mainlanders, any flirtations with pro-independence forces in Taiwan are similar to playing with fire, and 85℃ and other Taiwan companies alike were first to suffer from the backlash.


 


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