This opinion piece will examine US President Donald Trump’s positions and policies regarding Taiwan and China. No doubt the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have a contentious relationship, yet more so since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was elected, and this association is fraught with difficulty — for all three nations being considered here.
No less than war has been seen as a possibility, which none of the three truly want, but which seems to be a real prospect. Even short of armed conflict, the everyday conceptions of economic, cultural and political interaction are trying. Though distant from this challenging whirligig, Trump, as any US president, is a central actor. And so, what is Trump thinking, and how will he make his presence felt on this side of the world? Let us look at the options, with Trump and Taiwan scrutinized first.
In terms of Trump’s policies on Taiwan, he met with approval at home and abroad with his telephone conversation with Tsai on Dec. 2 last year. The call no doubt risked the ire of China, but it took place, with the Trump team remarking that the context was the firm economic, political and security ties that exist between Taiwan and the US — no doubt true, though rather than any genuine look at interaction and communication between the two leaders, this smacks of partisan speechifying (something that always mars Taiwan-US relations, weakening unaffected administrative and collective ties between the two nations).
Though friendly with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), Trump has by no means openly discouraged Taiwan. At the highest level, he has approved a US$1.4 billion arms package to Taiwan — a very important expansion.
Meanwhile, the US Senate and House of Representatives have been most agreeable with Taiwan and introduced a number of bills that have been very favorable to the nation. Trump cannot ignore these legal legislative developments and will likely go along with all of them.
In spite of these positive qualities, Trump has not actually said much that openly supports Taiwan’s sovereignty and/or self-possession (in fact, he has not said all that much about Taiwan at all).
Thus, in sum, Trump’s approach to Taiwan has been obliging, but much less than openly supportive and encouraging.
“Donald Trump is no friend of Taiwan” the Foreign Policy Research Institute said recently, and this is worrisome.
In terms of China, it appears that Trump and Xi have forged a fairly cooperative relationship, particularly after Xi’s visit to the US at Trump’s sumptuous resort in May (accommodations like this are bound to create reasonably good spirits).
“We have a great chemistry together. We like each other. I like him a lot. I think his wife is terrific,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal.
It is just this affability that has led some observers to say that Trump is cozying up to an authoritarian dictator. This could be partially true, as Trump himself appears to have an autocratic streak in his personality — his forceful and antagonistic policies have shown this.
However, is he getting in bed with Xi? Probably not.
Though the two might have a genial connection, and might even see eye to eye on certain restrictive, at times jingoistic, and even inequitable, policies, Trump is not likely to acquiescently hug up to China. The Middle Kingdom is too much a threat to US global dominance for that.
And, dictators have never really been that wild about one another — look at Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo in World War II, no particular friends they (and Hitler even dismissed Benito Mussolini as a second-rate totalitarian).
For Trump, China is a menace to US power, and his crazy-man US-first rhetoric will not allow Xi and his comrades to easily follow this route. The same is true for Xi, with his own nationalist bombast. I thus feel that although Xi and Trump look accommodating on the outside, neither is a best friend on the inside.
However, their sociability does need to be considered a bit further.
To be sure, not everyone in Taiwan is wild about the US and Chinese presidents being on a cliquey first-name basis. They would prefer the reverse, with Trump and Tsai meeting on the golf course or knocking back drinks at the Trump estate. Well, at least Trump and Tsai have made a substantive contact, as we have seen.
However, in the end, the reality is that Trump must put a lot more emphasis on the Chinese connection than he ever could on Taiwan, and good rapport with Xi is most assuredly a good thing for the US, at least up to a point.
However, how far can it go? Could it be that the sociable, clubby Trump could end up consulting with China in advance of decisions about US arms sales to Taiwan, mediating with China, or formally recognizing Chinese dominion over Taiwan — thus violating former US president Ronald Reagan’s “six assurances” to Taiwan?
I almost feel that Trump could be liable to make such theatrical moves, which would rock the political establishments of all three nations to the core — and that indeed sounds like Trump.
Though perhaps worrying, we suspect that the US Department of State would not stand for this. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — not unlike Trump a bit of a loose cannon (what would you expect from a Trump appointee?) — is not likely to upset the apple cart in such momentous ways, and many of his minions beneath him in the department would also not go along with such dramatic moves.
Speaking of which, I suspect the American Institute in Taiwan would be very much against such changes.
In the end, Trump’s connection to Xi is probably for the most part a benefit — even a benefit to Taiwan. A pleasant relationship might lead to overall receptive negotiations, which could extend to Taiwan and its relationship with China.
Xi’s oratory in last week’s opening of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress might have sounded somewhat overbearing and negative toward Taiwan, but I bet that Trump — with his recent arms deal with Taiwan, his declaration that he was not inevitably bound by the “one China” policy, and his easygoing telephone conversation with Tsai — was in the back of his mind. Xi is no fool, and just as Trump, he seeks optimal relations with the other major superpower.
And so is Taiwan no more than a chit in terms of Trump’s relationship with Beijing? No doubt this is a legitimate concern of Taiwanese, for Trump seems to play politics this way, moving pieces across the board game of political life in at best strategic, and at worst manipulative, ways.
This is a negative of Trump’s personality and is a true concern for Taiwan — for it does indeed seem to downgrade Taiwan to a game piece.
China has said Trump is “playing with fire” in terms of his Taiwan strategy, but it seems that he has not really gone this far — and indeed he has not gone far enough. As noted, though agreeable, he has been much less than publicly heartening with Taiwan.
Considering the vital importance of the Taiwan-US relationship — not least in terms of a rising China in the world, and the risk of conflict — this should be strengthened and improved.
David Pendery is an associate professor at National Taipei University of Business.
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