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May 24, 2017

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Improved US-China relations will be trouble for Taiwan

The United States seemed set for isolationism when President Donald Trump took office in January, with the world on its toes guessing to what extent his campaign promises would materialize.

But over the past week or so, Trump has shown an aggressiveness in flexing U.S. military muscle in some of the most serious conflict zones in the world.

He had the U.S. military fire missiles at Syrian targets last week when he was meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida in major fence-mending talks between the two superpowers.

He had described NATO as "obsolete," but now he has changed his mind, saying the alliance is "no longer obsolete."

U.S. forces have just dropped the so-called "Mother of All Bombs" on IS militants hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan.

And Trump's biggest military move since taking over the Oval Office could be up and coming in Northeast Asia. The United States has dispatched an aircraft carrier battle group to waters off the Korean Peninsula, apparently to try to intimidate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into behaving.

It is uncertain whether the U.S. will take concrete military action against North Korea, but Trump's actions to date are far from the isolationism he had promised on his campaign trial.

It may be all be a game that Trump is playing, but he is apparently trying to engage China in a new strategic plan in the area, forcing Beijing to rethink its role in helping rein in North Korea.

It is very unlikely that Washington and Beijing will ever become as close as the relationships are between the United States and its NATO allies. And it remains to be seen how China would react to open conflict between the United States and North Korea.

But friendliness in any form between the two superpowers would certainly cripple Taipei's ties with Washington.

Washington may still be bound by the Taiwan Relations Act, which obliges the United States to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan. But Trump, as his recent change of mind has shown, may not be nearly as friendly as some assumed he would be toward Taiwan.

He broke decades-old diplomatic protocol by talking on the phone to President Tsai Ing-wen before his inauguration. But that geniality can change, just as his vows of isolationism have changed.

So far, Trump seems to be occupied by more pressing issues — such as the crisis on the Korean Peninsula — and Taiwan seems to be on the back burner. And, Beijing is obviously still trying to figure out what kind of a game Trump is playing, so for now, is reluctant to pursue the Taiwan question.

But, unless Trump's North Korean policy turns disastrous and drives an immovable wedge between Beijing and Washington, there remains a very real prospect of the two developing closer ties. At some point, Taiwan will make it onto their agenda.

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