The election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the US has been a mixed blessing for longstanding critics of Washington’s engagement policy regarding Beijing.
As I have argued before in the Taipei Times, the president himself and the people whom he chooses to surround himself with send mixed signals. From hawkish posturing to heaping on nauseating levels of praise, the current US administration’s approach to China covers the spectrum.
Yet in the field of economics, where Trump’s challenge has been strongest, things look set to cool down as the US and the People’s Republic of China try to finalize a trade deal.
Those keen to promote human rights and protect the liberal democratic international order have been sidelined. Once Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) settle their differences on trade, could this sidelining continue as both countries reproach one another?
Throughout his first term, Trump has gradually steered toward the value-free and isolationist “America first” agenda he promised US voters in 2016. This shift could not have come at a worse time, as Beijing squeezes Hong Kong and ramps up its threats toward Taiwan.
Now more than ever, US leadership is needed in East Asia.
While the likes of US Assistant Secretary for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver — who has long advocated strong US-Taiwan ties — remain in place, key figures advocating an active US presence in the region have been ousted. Gone is former US national security adviser John Bolton, as is former US secretary of defense James Mattis.
In terms of practical policies, in the past few weeks, Trump has sold out the Kurds — a longstanding US ally in the battle against the Islamic State. Northeast Syria has been handed to Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while KGB thug Vladimir Putin has expanded his influence across the Middle East.
Closer to Taiwan, the US has suspended military training with South Korea in an effort to strike a deal with North Korea, and all the while the US president has pushed efforts to get Seoul to foot the bill for the US’ military presence on the peninsula, even threatening the possibility of troop withdrawals if he does not get his mercantilist way.
The US, under the leadership of Trump, appears all too willing to abandon friends, which does not bode well for those in Beijing’s sights. People in Taiwan and their friends should be worried, as Hong Kongers on the streets should also be.
Unless something dramatic occurs as part of the US House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry, this state of anxiety will be here for another year at the very least.
If Trump survives impeachment, the only thing stopping another four more years of US retreat is the election of a Democrat to the White House.
However, this would not guarantee Washington reviving its assertiveness toward Beijing. Like the Republicans, Democrats have a mixed record on this front.
After all, it was former US president Jimmy Carter who formally cut ties with Taiwan, and former US president Bill Clinton who foolishly embraced a policy of engagement, hoping that communist China would become more like the West.
Moreover, the US’ wider retreat across the world began under the previous administration of then-US president Barack Obama — not that Trump would like to think of himself as a continuation of his predecessor.
The current field of Democratic candidates remains wide, and many have been vocal in their support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement since opposition to the proposed extradition bill broke out in the territory. Yet little has been said about China or Taiwan.
During the last candidate debates there was no mention of the threat posed by Beijing to the free world, barring a few words from the impressive mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.
While domestic politics is paramount in any primary or general election campaign, as few voters actually care about geopolitics, the need for strong US leadership across the globe to counteract China should not be forgotten.
There is a risk that as the Democratic party becomes increasingly liberal, with promises of big spending at home and the rise of identity politics within its ranks, it could begin to mirror Trump’s isolationist foreign policy agenda — a style that is not exactly “America first,” but more “Me first.”
Moreover, those on the far fringes of the party who are ideologically predisposed to opposing US hegemony, such as the so-called “awkward squad” of House representatives, are becoming increasingly popular within the party.
The ascent of their worldview also risks turning the Democrats into a party content with their country’s isolationist trajectory.
Of course, the so-called “mainstream” politicians, or “moderates,” such as former US vice president Joe Biden, also pose a problem with their pro-business leanings and inclinations toward maintaining the “status quo.”
The attitudes of these figures, much like those on the radical wing of the party, remain a far cry from the “pay any price, bear any burden ... to assure the survival and the success of liberty” predisposition of the Democratic administrations of years gone by.
All of the Democratic candidates hoping to sit in the White House come 2021 should learn from Trump’s mistakes in northeast Syria and apply them to East Asia. Instability and the undermining of those championing liberal democracy occurs when the US packs up and goes home.
Whoever ascends to the role of commander-in-chief, should people vote to oust the incumbent, must stand up to China and stand by the people in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Gray Sergeant is a postgraduate student of Chinese politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and a human rights advocate.
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