The “US skeptic” and “Lai skeptic” arguments are gaining traction in Taiwanese political discourse, and might become a major campaign issue in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.
The former says that the US cannot be trusted to defend Taiwan should China launch an invasion, while the latter says that Washington does not have the faith in Vice President William Lai (賴清德) — a self-described “pragmatic independence worker” who is seeking the top job — that it has in President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
There is precedent for concern after the way US President Joe Biden handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and how former US presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama respectively left the Kurds in Syria high and dry, and failed to follow through a “red line” in that nation. Cautionary voices say the best way to safeguard Taiwan is to have some cynicism and not to put all the eggs in one basket.
Tsai has wedded her administration’s foreign policy to alignment with the US and Lai has said that he would follow her policies if elected. Both should take heed that the public either already harbor suspicions about the US or are being swayed by the political messaging of opposition parties, in particular the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
A Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation poll released last month showed that 46.5 percent of respondents did not believe the US military would defend Taiwan if China were to invade, while 42.8 percent did. This is more encouraging than the results of the same poll conducted in March last year, in which 55.9 percent did not believe the US would defend Taiwan and 34.5 percent believed it would.
However, the number of skeptics still outnumbered the believers.
An extension of the “eggs in one basket” argument is that a planned trip to China by former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) provides balance to Tsai’s trip next week that includes time in the US, where she is expected to meet US House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy. One side is boosting ties with the US, while the other is seeking good relations with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
A thread that connects the “US skeptic” and “Lai skeptic” arguments is that neither would be an issue were it not for the CCP’s desire to annex Taiwan, which would mean the complete destruction of the lifestyles and freedoms that Taiwanese value.
The purported upside to maintaining a healthy cynicism about the US’ commitment to protecting Taiwan, and its motivations for doing so, is that it necessarily comes with a heavy dose of cynicism about almost everything that the CCP says about its intentions for Taiwan. In other words, “US skeptics” know the importance of keeping their eyes wide open amid the CCP’s assurances that it would allow Taiwan to maintain its system of government and lifestyles post-annexation.
If the KMT wins the argument that a commitment to Taiwanese independence is to be regarded as a trigger for war and that war is to be avoided at all costs — which it must — then Lai becomes a liability.
An assessment of Washington’s faith in Lai must be made in the context of how it might feel about a KMT president.
Domestically, it is not enough to contend that the “US skeptic” and “Lai skeptic” narratives are the results of the KMT’s political machinations. It is important to recognize that, baseless or not, the KMT could be winning the argument, or at least winning it enough to secure victory next year.
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