With news this week that diplomatic ally Sao Tome and Principe has broken off relations with Taiwan, instead recognizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC), what lies ahead is an inevitable tsunami of headlines and think pieces implying that President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) foreign policy, or more specifically her “provocative” cross-strait policy, is to blame.
The argument will be that because Tsai refused to recognize a non-existent “consensus” which failed to emerge out of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talks in Hong Kong in 1992, and because she “conspired” to engineer a “one China” policy-contravening telephone call with US president-elect Donald Trump, she was punished by China stealing an ally as retribution.
At the same time, it will be implied that China has sent a message to Trump over his audacity in challenging Beijing’s core interests in Taiwan and the South China Sea and it will not go unpunished, by briefly taking one of the US Navy’s underwater drones in international waters.
It will be made clear that ultimately the blame lies with Tsai for gambling Taiwan’s future for the sake of a hopeless and dangerous dream of independence, in the process dragging an ignorant Trump administration into an avoidable confrontation between the world’s two largest military and economic superpowers. This hand-wringing is likely to delight Beijing.
Next year is set to be an explosive year in international relations, but one US foreign policy debate is likely to remain: that the existence of Taiwan as a de facto sovereign nation is a thorn in the dragon’s claw, and that the US, as a declared friend of Taiwan, is responsible for finding a way to remove the thorn, lest the beast exhale its fiery breath in the direction of US interests and investments.
Trump will come under immense pressure to return to the safe path of gently and slowly betraying Taiwan, a policy that has become a 38-year-long US tradition.
That tradition has not always been consistent. It has swayed between moments of principled outspokenness and direct action, such as former US president Bill Clinton’s show of force in 1996, and former US president G.W. Bush’s statements in defense of Taiwan, and incidents of craven cowardice and appeasement, such as US President Barack Obama’s utterly inaccurate characterization of Taiwan as enjoying “some degree of autonomy” and a “high degree of self-determination.”
However, mostly US-China policy has generally followed the pathway set down by then-US national security adviser Henry Kissinger and then-US president Richard Nixon in 1971 — that the US cannot afford to support a democratic Taiwan as a formal ally because the profits to be made from doing business with China are to great to forgo.
There is insufficient evidence at this point as to how Taiwan-US relations will change over the next four years. Although Trump appeared to set a much less conciliatory tone in US foreign policy toward China, his track record as a businessman suggests a much greater betrayal could be on the horizon.
When faced with an inevitable ultimatum from China, it is not certain whether Trump — under pressure of consultants invested in China — would ignore or accept the advice of China skeptics in his team and think first, making huge concessions to protect US investments and businesses and mollify the supposedly hurt feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese.
It does seem equally likely though that Trump would be as capable of continuing to betray Taiwanese as he is of supporting them. One thing that should be dismissed out of hand is that Trump’s administration will act on the principle of supporting democracy and freedom when it comes to dealing with Taiwan. In turn Tsai and Taiwanese would be foolish to expect any such thing from Washington.
For the White House to act consistently in defense of these principles — regardless of the contingent effects adhering to such a policy would have — would run counter to the entire history of US foreign policy.
If Taiwanese want to see what a US realpolitik betrayal looks like, they need search no further than Palestine. The US military, financial and diplomatic support for the ongoing occupation of the region by the theocratic-nationalist apartheid Israel and its policies of nation building via terrorism and ethnic cleansing are a prime example.
It is critical that during the next few years Taiwanese loudly reject a politics of fear and intimidation by China, and its attempts to sow division in the Taiwan-US relationship. They must not let internal and external forces convince them that Tsai has failed in her moral leadership of East Asia.
Instead, pressure should be placed on Trump to realize how important Taiwan is to US interests in the region. One way to do this is to appeal to the base, egotistical, a-principled, profit-driven oligarch that is the core of the man. Taiwanese should convince him of the profit of defending Taiwan and how he could also wield policy to present himself to US audiences as a US patriot.
Taiwan should advise him how to push back against China in increments and symbolically, using small, but substantive and positive — for Taiwan — changes in Taiwan-US relations as “punishments” for bullying.
It is perhaps a risky strategy and one that asks Trump to have a backbone, but both Tsai and Taiwanese would be better served being clear headed about who they are dealing with rather than continue to entertain any illusion about the actual rationales and game theory which inform and shape Taiwan-US policy.
If ever there was a time for Taiwanese to divest themselves of misconceptions about the US and its actual foreign policy priorities, it is now. Trump could turn out to be an ally, a fair-weather friend, or an apostate.
Tsai did not lose Sao Tome and Principe; that erosion of relations has continued unabated since the 1990s regardless of who has been president. Tsai’s “new southbound policy” or any attempt to raise the nation’s profile on the international stage are not responsible for China’s continued intimidation and threats.
The question of Taiwan in US East Asian policy is not a no-win scenario, and it is long past time when the US Department of State needs to stop pretending the Gordian Knot cannot be untied, or that Tsai or Taiwan are to blame for being targets of the Chinese empire.
For its part, the US’ post-World War II empire is crumbling. Its media and democracy have been bought out. They are compromised and are increasingly unstable. Taiwan’s stability in this regard has become an example for the US to aspire to and emulate, not patronize and pay lip service to.
If Trump is serious about defending US interests, he should look at Taiwan not as a pawn in a wider geostrategic game, but as an indispensable partner in the region, in much the same way the US now regards Japan.
Taiwan and the world should not look to Tsai to ask of her what she can do to avoid angering China, but to Trump and what he can do to finally recognize and declare Taiwan’s peaceful de facto independence as a core, indivisible US interest.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident in Taiwan
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