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As Taiwan's Relations With The U.S. Grow Warmer, Tensions With Beijing Rise

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

The U.S. has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But under President Trump, ties have grown warmer, warm enough that the administration did away with more than 40 years of precedent and sent two high-level officials to the island recently. And while Taiwan has welcomed the warm embrace, Beijing is not happy. As NPR's John Ruwitch reports, tensions are at their highest across the Taiwan Straits in decades.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: It all started, if you recall, less than a month after he was elected in 2016.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today President-elect Donald Trump spoke by phone to Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan. That breaks nearly four decades of diplomatic protocol.

RUWITCH: Trump's team and Taiwan's President Tsai were quick to say that the phone call did not signal a policy change. But in the four years since, Trump has taken a harder line on China than any of his recent predecessors, and some consider him the most pro-Taiwan president in years. Michael Mazza is with the American Enterprise Institute.

MICHAEL MAZZA: In a number of ways sort of across the board, the United States is treating Taiwan as a more normal, diplomatic partner.

RUWITCH: Besides sending senior officials to Taiwan, the Trump administration has increased the frequency of U.S. Navy ships sailing through the Taiwan Strait. It sold arms to Taiwan with greater regularity and less concern about China's objections than past administrations. People in democratic Taiwan seem OK with it all. A poll by YouGov last week shows that Taiwanese think Trump would be better for U.S.-Taiwan relations than Democratic candidate Joe Biden. But a second Trump term seems likely to bring even frostier relations with China and a closer embrace with Taiwan, which raises the risks for the island.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: A lot of this pro-Taiwan sympathy ends up being what I call bad friend syndrome.

RUWITCH: Lyle Goldstein is a research professor at the Naval War College.

GOLDSTEIN: That's where you want to help your friend, but the more you help them, you're actually putting them in a bad spot.

RUWITCH: Beijing, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, chafes at anything that smacks of increased international recognition of the island. It's been working overtime to block Taiwan from participating in international bodies, including the WHO. And the Chinese military has ramped up drills, including some that simulate battle with Taiwan. It's flown more warplanes than ever across the median line in the Taiwan Strait. Shelley Rigger is a professor at Davidson College. She believes Trump approaches Taiwan solely with China in mind.

SHELLEY RIGGER: The administration has been full of people who are vehemently anti-China, and they are willing to pull Taiwan into that conflict as a pawn.

RUWITCH: The U.S. could show real commitment to Taiwan by deepening economic ties and negotiating a bilateral trade agreement, she says. Taiwan's President Tsai tried to pave the way for that last month by opening the market to U.S. beef and pork. It was domestically unpopular, but Washington has yet to reciprocate.

RIGGER: And I don't think you are ever a good friend when you are throwing your pal in front of the bully because you are looking for a way to slow him down.

RUWITCH: Taiwan has been taking what it can get while signaling to Beijing that it isn't trying to upset the status quo.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: In her National Day speech on Oct. 10, Taiwan President Tsai said she was open to dialogue with Beijing. And last month, Taiwan's foreign minister told NPR that the island wasn't seeking formal diplomatic relations with the U.S. But Chinese leader Xi Jinping so far isn't letting up. Last week China launched fresh military drills along the coast, and it unveiled a string of allegations against supposed Taiwan spies caught in the mainland. Alexander Huang is a former Taiwan national security official who teaches at Tamkang University outside Taipei. He says the next few years could get even more dangerous.

ALEXANDER HUANG: I think the issue is to buy time. Taiwan should not challenge Beijing when Xi Jinping is still around.

RUWITCH: It should focus instead on strengthening its economy and defenses, he says, regardless of who wins the U.S. election or how much help Washington is willing to offer.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY ANDERSSON, BJORN ULVAEUS AND TIM RICE SONG, "ENDGAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.