In about two months, the US is to hold its presidential elections and pundits are already spouting a wide range of opinions on the candidates: “Will former US vice president Joe Biden or US President Donald Trump be better for Taiwan?”
It is an obvious, catchy topic, and one that deserves an answer. So, as a longtime observer and commentator on Taiwan and its democracy, I will not hold back.
In this election, whether Biden or Trump wins, as far as Taiwan is concerned, does not matter that much. It can and will definitely make a difference for the US, but, as far as Taiwan goes, it will not.
What? How can one say that? I can already see numerous pundits on either side salivating as they prepare to whip out their canned responses: “Oh, but what about this?” and: “Oh, but what about that?”
What about such answers? Ignore them.
Those answers grasp at single straws in trying to prove a misty point, while ignoring the 75-year haystack of reality that exists.
The reasoning is simple, straightforward and clear:
In the reality of the past 75 years, Taiwan has achieved democracy primarily by the efforts and will of its own people, and not any others.
Yet, Taiwan still cannot sit at the UN table of accepted self-determination, and the US continues to be of little concrete help there.
Why? A full answer exposes the many mixed motives, self-serving goals and even the incompetence of past US administrations.
THE BACK BURNER
The US was the prime victor in the Pacific War, but at the war’s end in 1945, it was either too tired or incapable to carry out the conflict’s final goals to a satisfying conclusion, as regards Taiwan.
In the past 75 years, Taiwan has dealt with numerous US presidents, both Democrat and Republican. With each, whatever gains it made, Taiwan has always been put on the back burner, always in that get-to-later position, yielding to other more pressing problems.
In effect, Taiwan has been like an attractive mistress with a rich inheritance from the Japanese Empire. It is too rich, attractive and strategically important to be discarded or ignored, but it remains too risky and controversial to be granted full recognition in proper and established social circles.
There are many reasons for this. The US always serves its own interests first. It has never consistently had good, savvy Asian experts. Other “bigger” fires have always had to be put out, and the US has even been plagued by administrative pettiness.
As these reasons intertwine, they have spelled out Taiwan’s second-class status.
This is the reality that Taiwan must face and be conscious of. The US remains unable or unwilling to resolve the ambiguity it created in the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty.
True, a Cold War was brewing in 1952, but that does not excuse the US’ years of long, continued irresponsibility following that agreement.
Perhaps the US had thoughts of solving the issue later, but that later never came, or it lacked the knowledge, statesmen and acumen to resolve the issue. If so, it does not have such now.
Was it playing for time? For anyone to expect that answers would be found with either Trump or Biden is fruitless. Taiwan remains a back-burner issue, sometimes even serving as a pawn.
Further, in Asia, the US has never quite known where it is going, and pettiness has often come in to play.
In 1968, then-US presidential candidate Richard Nixon, after a tip from adviser Henry Kissinger, convinced journalist Anna Chennault (陳香梅) to submarine the peace talks that US President Lyndon B. Johnson was brokering and Russia supported.
Nixon did this so he would be elected president and could plan his own talks. Did he really offer a better deal?
Thousands of Americans died for this pettiness. Ironically, Kissinger received a Nobel Peace Prize.
Likewise there was the US’ imagined paradigmatic domino theory, which subsequently never happened. The US did not understand Vietnam’s own differences from China.
Even now, the US faces a new and different irony. In less than a year, it has had three times the number of deaths from COVID-19 than it had after 20 long years of war in Vietnam.
Yet, Americans appear unconcerned or unable to factor in this reality when they plan to vote in November.
Does anyone expect those same voters to have any overreaching knowledge regarding the reality of Taiwan’s history or goals?
The US does not have a good track record of generating trust in others, with regards to dictators.
The US often has a history of supporting them and then dumping the same. It operates more from pragmatism than principle.
How long did it take the US to dump the former regime of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and recognize China?
If Taiwan had possessed oil like Kuwait did, its treatment would certainly have been different. How pure was the final US motive in coming to terms with China?
Why did the US switch gears by treating China the opposite from how it treated the Soviet Union?
Did the allure of the profit from having things made cheaply in China win out? If US jobs were taken away by China, many US administrations were complicit in that.
Here, as with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, the US created a problem that it now realizes it must solve.
All this does not mean that Taiwan should give up on the US, but simply that it must be realistic and filter any expectations of its presidential candidates.
It should not pin its hopes on either one.
THE REAL ENEMY
Instead, Taiwan must continue its own pragmatic Machiavellian approach, and follow political theorist Carl Schmidt’s dictum in determining who is its real enemy.
That enemy is China.
Looking then at the big picture, Taiwan can see foreign relations as a massive, flowing river. A nation can use this river’s flow to its advantage, but it must also beware of its whirlpools, rapids and dangers.
The US might not be the enemy, but that does not translate into guaranteed reliability from any administration.
Instead, Taiwan should look more to regional alliances like Japan, which has more skin in the game. Who will succeed Japan’s retiring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?
Then there is India and Australia who are awakening to China’s advances. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” — certainly for the time being.
Throughout, Taiwan’s chief aim must be to preserve its democracy and its de facto independence. These remain its sine qua nons.
The US, which remains on a slow learning curve, might provide needed weapons, but there are also other sellers available.
What then about the two US presidential candidates?
Trump has never been known to have a plan. He operates opportunistically; his running for re-election might be driven more by his narcissism, as well as his need to maintain presidential immunity from jail.
Any desire of his to help Taiwan would be influenced by that.
Trump’s actions with Ukraine, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and others show little promise of a sustained, clear-principled and beneficial foreign policy.
The nagging issue of why he shows ambivalence toward Russian interests also continually hangs in the air.
What then about Biden? He remains enigmatic since he has never felt the responsibility of full leadership and decisionmaking. He could grow into the position, and has a better chance of doing so than did Trump.
However, he would also be an interim president. That might be its own advantage.
Taiwan therefore should not have any undue expectations; it needs to be friends with both parties and both candidates.
Former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) understood this well.
In 1994, he was in transit when visiting Taiwan allies in Latin America. Then-US president Bill Clinton would not allow his plane to land in a major continental US city. It was considered “too controversial,” so Lee’s plane had to land at a small military airfield in Hawaii to refuel.
After the plane landed, Lee wisely refused to get off. It was a good decision. He was silently saying: “If Taiwan’s plane is not fit to land in the continental US, I am not going to honor you by disembarking in Hawaii.” Lee would not accept the secondhand crumbs that Clinton offered.
The US Congress saw this and both parties overwhelmingly supported Lee. The next year, they made possible his historic visit to Cornell University.
Lee understood both sides of the political game, and is definitely honored in his nation, much more so than Clinton.
The Czech Republic seems more willing to directly incur China’s wrath with a full, higher-level visit than that of the US. Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil brought an 89-strong member team to Taiwan.
So, should Taiwan prefer Biden or Trump? It does not matter. Do not expect the US elections to drastically change the past 75 years of history. Taiwan still has its “rich inheritance” and cards of its own to play, and those are its real key to the future.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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