William Lai Ching-te is the Vice President-elect of Taiwan. His running mate, Tsai Ing-wen, won re-election on January 11 of this year with a landslide victory far outstripping expectations. She won with 57% of the vote and a strong turnout against a pro-Bejing candidate, due mostly to the pressure that China had been exerting on Hong Kong.
China has been putting pressure on Taiwan since 2016, when Tsai was first elected. Travel and trade restrictions were put into place in direct response to Tsai’s pro-independence social and economic policies. They were successful, causing Tsai’s party to lose multiple seats nationwide in the 2018 midterms, but the demonstration of China’s willingness to use force in Hong Kong seemed to expose the “one country, two systems” line used by pro-Bejing politicians in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Rather than win by a small margin, as expected, Tsai grew her majority in the 2020 election.
The Taiwanese President has previously used Trump’s vanity to her advantage. As has recently been demonstrated with Ukraine’s Zalensky, a direct association with the United States President is a valuable diplomatic tool for countries being threatened with military takeover. Tsai leveraged Trump’s personality in order to show exactly that sort of association, and Trump obliged.
Once he had made the statement publicly, he was vocally encouraged by many Republican supporters. Taiwan’s independence has long been valued by advocates of freedom in this country, including a majority of Republicans.
Nevertheless, the political situation is such that Taiwanese leaders have historically been restricted in their visits to the U.S. President Trump has broken with that tradition, allowing Tsai to visit New York and even a federal property, NASA headquarters, in Washington D.C.
President Trump has expanded US relations with Taiwan more than any President since Reagan. And the Taiwanese leadership, encouraging this, has consistently said nice things about President Trump.
On Wednesday, her Vice President-elect, William Lai Ching-te, is due in Washington D.C. to attend the national prayer breakfast. His official reason is to thank U.S. officials who have supported Taiwan’s efforts to join the World Health Organization. The unofficial reason is likely to attempt a face-to-face meeting with President Trump.
No such face-to-face encounters have happened in decades. If such a meeting occurs, it will be a direct refutation of Trump’s “America First” policy. While it undoubtedly forwards the interests of Americanism and world freedom, it will be another spike in the wheel of the U.S./China trade war from which Trump has been attempting to extricate himself for years. His latest effort, the “Phase One” deal which was to reset parts of trade back to where they were prior to the dueling tariffs, is already encountering stumbling blocks as American farmers realize that China has only promised to purchase their former quantities if Americans can meet market prices… and that, due to the shift in supply chains forced by Trump’s trade war, Americans can often not provide the food at the prices required.
It is an effort which could easily be fully supported based on the expansion of world freedom and the pushback against China’s encroachment, but it will have to be balanced against the continued troubles of farmers who have had years of financial hardship due to the trade war. In reality, Trump will likely not consider any of this. If many books written by people with inside access to the White House are to be believed, Trump is likely to be unwilling to even be briefed on the potential positives and negatives of the meeting.
It will be up to the Taiwanese V.P. to catch Trump’s eye at the breakfast and to appear to be suitably obsequious. If he can do so, he may hand Taiwan another major diplomatic coup as Trump’s vanity is exploited by an ally, rather than an adversary, for a change.