2019 was a horrible year for United States relations with China, the most dismal in US-China relations since the Cultural Revolution. But the good news is that 2019 was a year of deepening cooperation between the US and Taiwan.
Despite Washington’s vague and tenuous trade “armistice” with Beijing last week, US-China relations will probably deteriorate further in 2020.
And despite the departure from the Trump Administration of key policy-makers inclined favorably to Taiwan (Ambassador John Bolton left the Trump Administration in September, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver plans to depart next week) Washington-Taipei economic and security cooperation promises to strengthen.
Of course, in an ideal world, Washington would love Taipei simply for itself; for its beautiful, democratic, prosperous, free-market, technology-heavy self. But it is a truism that America’s relations with Taiwan have always been at a zero-sum in America’s broader strategic calculus toward the new Chinese Superpower.
During this past year, 2019, the Chinese threat grew. 2019 was a year of sharp hostility and constant recrimination between Washington and Beijing on everything from China’s trade cheating, currency manipulation, theft of intellectual property, dumping, and blatant state mercantilism.
Each week, top American officials speak out against China’s militarization of the South China Sea, threats to its neighbors from India to Japan, unprecedented arms modernization, or against China’s “debt diplomacy” crafted to turn poor countries into indentured servants.
In recent months, American intelligence and diplomatic sources have confirmed China’s ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, internment of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs in concentration camps.
Earlier in the summer of 2019, President Trump was careful in his support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, asking the US Consul General in Hong Kong to tone down his speech on the erosion of freedoms in the former British colony. But as the demonstrations persisted into the autumn, US support for American flag-waving protests in Hong Kong became effective tools to moderate China’s natural ruthlessness, both in Hong Kong and in trade talks. The pro-democracy camp’s sweeping victories in Hong Kong’s November 24 district council elections injected the pro-democracy campaign with new vigor and clear political legitimacy. A few days later, on November 27, President Trump signed into law a bill supporting Hong Kong democracy. President Trump’s signature was in sincere sympathy for Hong Kong, it was also part of President Trump’s new leverage against China in trade talks.
China is growing more hostile, aggressive and malign in global affairs and, while President Trump tries to maintain aloofness, this is a message that American political and military leaders now deliver at every opportunity. Vice President Michael Pence, and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo now commonly put China’s threat at the center of their foreign policy addresses. In the first two weeks of this month, defense secretary Mark Esper, and Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson delivered major addresses on the China threat. On December 2, Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific David Stilwell spoke at the Brookings Institution on China’s threat to pluralism and democracy in the Asia Pacific. Just ten days later at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on December 12, Secretary Stilwell spoke passionately of the past forty years of America’s encouragement for China’s development and prosperity, only to find “that Chinese Communist Party leaders decided to respond to our good faith with such aggressive and consistent bad faith.”
In the face of all this mutual ill-will, it came as a bit of a surprise that Washington and Beijing reached a “Phase One” trade agreement on December 13 forestalling new US tariffs on Chinese imports. China pledged to buy an additional US$200 billion in US exports over two years, including an additional US$16 billion to US$20 billion annually in US farm exports. In return, the US will not inflict further tariffs on China, and will reduce slightly tariffs imposed in September. To my untutored eye, the “Phase One” deal is a clear win for the US, but it must be followed immediately by China’s further “Phase Two” behavior-modification or else the tariffs will “snap-back” just around the time of the US election.
For these reasons, I see next year, 2020, as being even more stressful than 2019 for US-China relations, with President Trump employing his signature “transactional foreign policies” to enforce his leverage with China. And, it will come as no surprise that improved US-Taiwan relations are part of his leverage. If China behaves, in trade and economics, in human rights, democracy and in its military expansion, the Trump Administration’s public ties with Taiwan will improve somewhat, but not in a major way. But America’s relations with Taiwan will not weaken; indeed, it defeats President Trump’s negotiating strategy to permit US-Taiwan relations to falter, as they are his most effective bargaining chip — he never lets any bargaining power weaken. But if, as I fully expect, China goes charging into 2020 heedless of global anxieties about the new superpower, America’s open and visible relations with Taiwan will have to be dramatic.
In 2019, nowhere was that new relationship more visible than in the Pacific. The Trump Administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy now as a half-billion dollars in new development commitments to Pacific Island partners and allies. The US Pacific Fleet now has a new focus on the Pacific spelled out in the Pentagon’s June 1, 2019 “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.” Taiwan is now a key player in America’s new strategy to balance China’s Pacific rise. For the first time, senior American diplomats are proselytizing on Taiwan’s behalf. In October, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Sandra Oudkirk co-hosted the Pacific Islands Dialogue in Taipei with foreign minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) and diplomats from several Pacific Island states. Just two weeks ago, here in Washington, I chaired a panel discussion on American interests in the South Pacific, where the deputy director of the State Department’s Australia and Pacific Islands office gave an on-the-record briefing on US-Taiwan partnership in Oceania, explaining “Taiwan and its vibrant democracy are a force for good in the Pacific, and in the world. That is why we firmly support Taiwan’s relationships with Pacific Island nations. We have a shared vision for the region — one that includes rule of law, prosperity, and security for all.” The State Department, which for four decades had studiously ignored Taiwan’s accomplishments and contributions in the Pacific, in 2019 proudly embraces Taiwan.
Last week, however, a few anonymous commentators were spreading the story that assistant defense secretary Schriver is resigning because “his efforts to strengthen relations with Taiwan … ran counter to US President Donald Trump’s attempts to conclude a trade agreement with China, causing Schriver to be ‘frustrated’.”
These rumors are manifestly false. First, President Trump employed quite happily the new US warmth toward Taiwan to maneuver China in the trade talks, and values Taiwan for the leverage it gives him. I cannot see him weakening that tool. Second, Secretary Schriver’s friends and colleagues in Washington have been aware for the past year that Randy planned to step down at the end of 2019 for family reasons. I don’t know who will replace him, but the names I have heard are all cold-eyed Realpolitikers who likewise hold Taiwan and its democratic leaders in high esteem.
As for Ambassador Bolton’s departure — if anything, the Administration’s friendliness to Taiwan has grown as the Administration’s rhetoric toward China has sharpened. It seems to me that the White House National Security Council, including secretaries of state and defense Pompeo and Esper, and the White House NSC staff has strengthened in its sympathy toward, and support of, Taiwan as a powerful US partner in the Pacific.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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