Risking a diplomatic contretemps, Texas’ governor and junior U.S. senator on Sunday made an arguably shrewd political calculation, meeting in Houston with the president of Taiwan over the objections of China.
The decision by Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz spoke to the political inclinations of their Republican base, to the trading muscle of Texas — which can evidently risk offending the leadership of another of the world’s leading economies — and, perhaps, to realpolitik in the age of Trump.
The meetings with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen were ostensibly about improving trade, as the leaders exchanged pleasantries about energy and trade. But the discussion was freighted with politics as much as policy.
Ahead of the meeting with Texas officials, Li Qiangmin, consul general of the People’s Republic of China in Houston, had sent Cruz a note urging him not to meet with Tsai, whose political party has argued for Taiwanese independence.
“In order not to interfere with the China-U.S. cooperation, I believe proper handling with (the) Taiwan issue is always necessary and wise for all parties relevant,” Li wrote on Jan. 3.
“The People’s Republic of China needs to understand that in America we make decisions about meeting with visitors for ourselves,” Cruz said in a news release after the meeting. “This is not about the PRC. This is about the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, an ally we are legally bound to defend. The Chinese do not give us veto power over those with whom they meet. We will continue to meet with anyone, including the Taiwanese, as we see fit.
“The U.S.-Taiwan relationship is not on the negotiating table. It is bound in statute and founded on common interests. I look forward to working with President Tsai to strengthen our partnership.”
The meeting came about after the director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Houston — the closest thing Taiwan has to a consulate in the United States, which doesn’t officially recognize the country as part of its delicate relationship with China — contacted the Texas secretary of state in mid-November to inform state officials Taiwan’s president would be visiting Texas as part of a trip with trade partners.
Taiwan split from China in 1949, but China still considers the island part of its territory and would consider it a diplomatic breach for the U.S. to recognize Taiwan’s leader as a head of state. Since 1979, U.S. policy has been to recognize Beijing as China’s government and maintain only unofficial relations with Taiwan.
Texas officials have met with Taiwanese officials before — Rick Perry, as governor, traveled to Taiwan on at least one occasion, in 2010 — but China watchers saw the Abbott and Cruz meeting as unmistakably tied to the actions of Trump.
“It plays well politically, to tweak the nose of the Chinese,” said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston who specializes in China-U.S. relations.
The meetings were “an effort by Abbott and Cruz to show far-right Republicans, Trump Republicans, they’re going to follow the president’s lead and reach out to Taiwan,” said Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas professor of public policy.
But he called that approach “perilous.”
“It’s an effort to symbolically gain favor with certain voters in the primary, but Abbott and Cruz underestimate how significant it is for policy,” Suri said.
“We should be strong and firm with China, but not necessarily cavorting with their adversaries,” he said.
But Taylor said the to-do over Tsai’s visit was not unusual.
“This is something that happens all the time,” he said. “It may peeve the Chinese briefly, but they know that (Abbott and Cruz) are not setting policy — that’s something up to Trump.”
Texas officials “can get away with it better than some small states,” Taylor said, because Texas is one of China’s major trading partners.
Jimmy Ma, a Taiwanese-American host of the television show “Houston Asian Voice,” which covers political issues, said the meeting with Texas officials was about Tsai’s trying to boost her own flagging popularity.
The meeting “advances her own agenda and achieves no political goal,” said Ma, who said it serves only to complicate China-U.S. relations.
Viewed in the larger context of international relations — a dwindling number of nations, fewer than two dozen, recognize Taiwan — the meeting would be important to Taiwanese who fear isolation, said Karl Ho, a political science professor at UT-Dallas who specializes in China-Taiwan relations.
A news release from Abbott’s office concentrated on the trade opportunities for the two nations.
“Thanks to our favorable regulatory and legal climate, Texas remains and will continue to be a premier destination for Taiwanese businesses to expand and thrive,” Abbott said.
Tsai was similarly optimistic, saying, “I believe there will be more opportunities for both sides to work even closer in the future.”
The pair concluded the meeting by exchanging gifts, with Tsai receiving a clock bearing the Texas state seal and Abbott receiving a Taiwanese vase.
Abbott’s gift was apparently a cultural faux pas: Clocks given as gifts are considered bad luck in Chinese culture as saying “giving a clock” sounds like “attending a funeral.”
Tsai did not appear fazed by the gift, according to Taiwan News.
FAR ACROSS PACIFIC
Both China and Taiwan do major trade with Texas.
In 2015, Texas’ exports to Taiwan reached more than $3.2 billion, according to U.S.-Taiwan Connect, a Taiwanese government trade promotion site. Taiwan is Texas’ 13th-largest export market in the world and fifth-largest export market in Asia. Major points of trade include agriculture, energy and technology.
Among Taiwanese companies with Texas operations is TECO-Westinghouse Motor Co., which has headquarters in Round Rock.
Exports to China reached $10.9 billion in 2014, making it Texas’ fourth-largest export partner behind Mexico, Canada and Brazil, according to the foreign investment firm Dezan Shira. Overall, China is Texas’ second-biggest trade partner behind Mexico.