During the first month of US President Donald Trump’s administration, the trend toward deglobalization has increased the complexity of cooperation between the US and its allies. In particular, Trump’s decision scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) created new political and economic dynamics worldwide.
Nations like Taiwan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines find themselves in an uncertain situation, as they are tethered to an isolationist global power against an increasingly assertive China. This geopolitical issue becomes more acute for Taiwan, whose stability and security is greatly affected by Beijing’s diplomatic and maritime posture in the Pacific region.
Trump is known for shifting his position on domestic and foreign policies. It is hard for any nation to pursue a stable diplomacy with someone who blows hot and cold in the White House. This has led to the recalibration of geopolitical relations in Asia and Europe, and how Trump’s impulsive approach will hurt US-China ties remains to be seen.
While the international media has criticized Trump for using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in extracting concessions from China, one should not underestimate Taipei’s ability to exercise its limited agency and influence on three levels.
First, geopolitics is shaped as much by might as by ideas and norms. Although China is widely seen as a unipolar power in Asia, any attempt by Beijing to destabilize the Taiwan Strait would unsettle neighboring nations and undermine China’s global image.
Taiwan also adheres to the norms of a liberal world order and refers to such values when applying to join multilateral organizations. In doing so, the nation is making its presence felt and trying to close the influence gap with China.
Second, Taiwan’s future is subject to the reactions of the US allies toward growing Chinese dominance. China seeks to fill any power vacuum left by the withdrawal of US forces in inner Asia and to play a larger role in regional security, governance and economic issues.
China’s rise to power and the reorganizing of East Asian geopolitics appear to have eroded Taiwan’s autonomy. Nonetheless, President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) modest diplomatic initiatives, together with the support of Japan, Singapore and Vietnam, has enabled the nation to maneuver in a fluid geopolitical environment.
Third, despite the perception that Taiwan is at the mercy of China and the US, the nation continues to maintain extensive diplomatic and unofficial connections worldwide.
Reaching out to formal diplomatic allies is always on the top of Tsai’s policy agenda. Her visit last month to four Central American states might have been symbolic, but it showed Taiwan’s determination to assert its diplomatic agency and bolster ties with longstanding allies.
On the surface, everything is shifting in China’s favor in regional politics. By using economic co-optation to restrict Taiwanese pro-independence forces, Beijing is doubling efforts to marginalize the nation by stopping Taiwanese participation in multilateral institutions and by targeting its few diplomatic allies.
The Taiwan issue continues to be at the center of US-China relations. Perceiving China as a competitor, the reaffirmation of the US-Japan security alliance was significant. Not only did the announcement erase doubts in Tokyo, but it brought both nations closer to confronting the North Korean nuclear threat and the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea.
In the light of escalating diplomatic and maritime tensions, the best guarantee for Taiwan is to forge formal and informal regional alliances to balance any external security threat.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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