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Why Donald Trump might not follow US presidents’ precedent on Taiwan

Maintaining the status quo is the best policy for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen amid the cross-strait stalemate. But Donald Trump’s presidency adds uncertainty to such an impasse.

The biggest question facing Taiwan is what Trump’s Asia diplomacy will look like and how Taipei should respond to a complicated post-Obama world order.

In the first place, Trump’s win is a setback for Tsai in that her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party bet on a Hillary Clinton win from the start.

The reasons for that bet were simple. First, Taiwan had closer relations with the Clintons during Bill Clinton’s presidency between 1993 and 2001, which overlapped with Lee Teng-hui’s presidency in Taiwan between 1988 and 2000. The former US president had visited Taiwan several times as governor of Arkansas and after he left the White House, despite Beijing’s protests. Tsai and the DPP have no personal links with Trump.

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Second, Trump’s pledge to kill the China-excluding Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact and his isolationist foreign policy stance will probably hurt Taiwan’s interests.

Tsai planned to join the TPP to cut economic reliance on the mainland, and to break through China’s economic blockage. But Trump last week pledged to kill the 12-member pact during his first day in office, so Taipei should prepare for US withdrawal.

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Taiwan has striven to keep itself relevant in the increasingly complex value chains in an integrated global economy, but risks being locked out of other multilateral deals like the China-initiated, 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Taiwan also risks being economically marginalised, even more so since Beijing cut off communication and exchanges with Taipei after Tsai took office in May.

Trump has cast doubt on American commitment to traditional alliances in East Asia, suggesting Japan and South Korea – two staunch US allies – should foot more of the bill for their protection. He has also spoken out against US involvement in foreign wars, which raised a question over the nation’s long-term commitment to helping defend Taiwan.

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Trump’s isolationism might herald a fresh opportunity for more US weapons sales to Taiwan. Though that would boost Taiwan’s defences, it would also irk Beijing and complicate already fragile relations.

It might be music to Taiwan’s ears that the Republican National Convention included on this year’s election platform – for the first time – the “six assurances” that former president Ronald Reagan gave to Taiwan in 1982. It could also help that the previous DPP government under Chen Shui-bian between 2000 and 2008 built closer contact with a Republican US administration under George W. Bush.

And diplomatic observers might note that the Taiwan-US relationship is much deeper than just the executive branches, and the self-ruled island has long enjoyed bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

A third of US senators belong to the Taiwan caucus, along with about half of 435 US representatives.

But the big question is whether Trump, a political novice with no strong link to the Washington establishment, will follow the party line or rely on professionals for his foreign and defence policy as all his predecessors did.

The US and Chinese economies are deeply dependent on each other, and under his “America first” mantra, Trump is unlikely to strain that relationship because of commitments Congress and previous administrations have made to Taiwan.

So the biggest uncertainty underpinning Taiwan’s diplomacy from now on hinges on whether Trump will prevail over the whole established litany, or just follow precedent.

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s