Straight after her landslide win in Saturday’s presidential election, Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen received three US delegations within four days while cards, letters and emails of congratulation from the island’s unofficial ally continue to pour into her office.

The most senior US politician to have heaped praise and good wishes on Tsai was Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who talked up the need for stronger relations between the two sides.

The former vice-president tweeted “you are stronger because of your free and open society … The US should continue strengthening our ties with Taiwan and other like-minded democracies.”

Now it appears that, armed with a strong mandate after garnering the most votes seen in all of the island’s presidential races since the first free vote in 1996, Tsai is tilting further towards the US to counter Beijing’s pull, with a renewed push for more trade deals and business on top of arms sales.

Tsai met with Kurt Tong, former US consul to Hong Kong, on Tuesday, who was heading a delegation from the US Center for Strategic and International Studies. Photo: Handout

Tsai again floated the idea of a free trade pact with the US while meeting a group of academics and former officials from the American Enterprise Institute think tank on Monday, who were on the self-governed island to observe the presidential and Legislative Yuan elections.

She told guests that ties between Taiwan and the US were at the best they had ever been thanks to the two sides’ joint efforts since she came to power in 2016. She added that working on and signing a bilateral trade deal would spur more trade, not limited to the one-way sale of missiles and fighter jets from the US to the island.

Tsai also highlighted the potential in trade and commerce when meeting with Washington’s de-facto ambassador to the island Brent Christensen, whose official title was director of the American Institute in Taiwan, one day after her re-election on Sunday.

Brent Christensen was the first foreign official Tsai met following her re-election. Photo: Handout

“In regard to the economy, we look forward to bolstering the integration of the Taiwan-US industry chain and continuing to deepen our trade relations,” Tsai said during their meeting, according to a statement on the website of Tsai’s office.

“The Taiwan-US relationship has already grown from a bilateral one to a global partnership. In the future, we will continue to build on the foundation we have created throughout the past years to strengthen our cooperation on global issues.”

Tsai wants a future free trade agreement with the US to serve as a reference, when the island looks to sign similar accords and deals with Japan, the European Union and the ASEAN nations.

Bilateral trade between the US and Taiwan stood at US$68.2 billion in 2017, with the island trailing smaller economies like Hong Kong and Singapore and ranked America’s 14th largest export market that year, according to data from the International Trade Administration under the US Department of Commerce. The US booked a $16.73 billion deficit in the same year.

US manufacturers showcase their America-made consumer goods at a trade fair in Taiwan. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan
US and Taiwanese officials attend an agricultural trade conference. Taiwan has increased its purchases of US farm products including soybeans. Photo: Handout

Observers in Taiwan believe the US may demand more purchases by Taiwan when Tsai continues to broach the idea of an FTA.

They say US negotiators will unlikely be lenient with their Taiwanese counterparts when getting down to the nitty-gritty of a pact and may even replicate their hardline tactics from their talks with Chinese, even though there are no major trade rifts between the US and Taiwan.

“Taiwan needs the US, more than the other way around, and when we have to diversify our trade and business dealings away from mainland China and tap new markets, the US may have an upper hand [in negotiations] and demand its trade deficit be reduced,” a Taiwanese official with the island’s Bureau of Foreign Trade told local papers.

Mainland China remained Taiwan’s largest export market, investment destination and source of a trade surplus totaling $128.95 billion in 2018, according to the Chinese Commerce Ministry.

Tsai was Taiwan’s chief trade negotiator and legal counsel in the late 1990s when the island sought to join the World Trade Organization to spawn more deals for its bourgeoning export economy.