This past year has been a tumultuous one for Taiwan and the rest of East Asia, and 2024 doesn’t promise much change. Much depends on the interplay between the domestic politics and foreign policies of Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, and Taiwan itself in the coming year.
The November 15th summit between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping (習近平) injected a note of stability into perhaps the most important bilateral relationship in the world. During a stiff meeting in California, the two leaders basically agreed to place a floor on the steadily deteriorating bilateral relationship. With a sagging economy and tensions with most of his Asian neighbors, this represented tacit agreement by the authoritarian leader that he needs to draw back from his belligerent regional policies.
Biden was gracious but firm in calling on Xi to temper his bullying policies toward Taiwan and other regional players. How long this entente will last, however, remains to be seen. Xi may hope next year’s American elections yield a more docile opponent.
The prospects for change in China seem grim in the short run. The PRC has plenty of domestic problems it could focus on. But like most autocrats, Mr. Xi seems intent on picking his own policy priorities, whether it involves bogus territorial claims in the South China Sea or the harsh repression of minorities in his own domain.
Barring a stunning transformation, Beijing will remain an autocratic state willing to challenge its neighbors both politically and militarily. Just look at the myriad territorial claims — often on spurious grounds — that China puts forward on a regular basis. Its peripheral states have long and bitter memories of a rising China seeking to limit or subjugate their sovereignty.
Taiwan has been prospering, despite the constant pressure from Beijing, both rhetorical and military. Mr. Xi keeps talking about his ambition to harness Taiwan to his authoritarian rule. He has proven a man of his word, suppressing any autonomy in such border regions as Xinjiang and Tibet, in the face of near global opprobrium by the rest of East Asia and much of the planet. Not a very hopeful projection for Beijing’s relations within the region.
In contrast, one promising sign in the region is South Korea’s long overdue easing of tensions with neighboring Japan. For the longest time, Seoul appeared convinced that World War Two — and Japan’s accompanying harsh occupation of Korea and other parts of the region — remained stubborn obstacles to improved bilateral ties. In the same vein, places like Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, and India seem more fixated on the looming threat from authoritarian China than continuing to harp on ancient historical grievances. China needs to recognize that World War II is now ancient history.
Japan’s political trajectory has also been more encouraging, with greater willingness to shore up solid, if informal, relations with Taiwan. At the same time Tokyo is patching up historical grievances with South Korea, and placing greater focus on its own self-defense and power projection capacity.
Let’s turn to American politics. President Joe Biden and his national affairs team have taken a solid stance on security issues in Asia. That said, the biggest question for 2024 is whether Mr. Biden will win the US Presidential elections next fall. The stakes could not be higher. If Joe Biden earns a second term from US voters, I predict a great deal of continuity and steady policy commitment to our range of interests in the region. But American elections are always tough to forecast. The possibility that former President Donald Trump might return to power, lugging along his many grievances and resentments, would likely introduce new chaos and turmoil into Washington’s Asian policy.
In fact, if Donald Trump overcomes his multiple legal problems and regains the White House, all bets are off. I have never felt that Mr. Trump takes international issues seriously. His measure of a relationship is how fawning the other party treats him, whether a world leader or members of his own team. While in office, he steadily alienated most of the serious foreign policy experts willing to serve in his administration. John Bolton comes to mind as an example, but the tale played itself over and over again. So the dismal prospect of a second Trump administration in 2025 could introduce renewed havoc to both domestic and international politics. Given a second chance in the White House, Trump would likely stock his administration with second-rate politicians willing to do whatever it takes to stay in office. Not a very appealing prospect.
The stakes for Taiwan would be particularly grim. Trump has never shown any understanding of or appreciation for the people or government of Taiwan. Even though he undoubtedly uses microchips made in Taiwan as he blasts out his diatribes on social media, Mr. Trump also lacks a basic understanding of Taiwan’s outsized clout in the digital field. Trump’s election would undoubtedly herald a downward trend in US-Taiwan relations.
Congress could temper any such trend, particularly if at least one, or better yet both, branches of that body were secured by the Democrats. Even Republicans in Congress have generally favored strong ties to East Asia, with a particular fondness for Taiwan. Taipei and its many friends on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill should be credited for nurturing long-term and bipartisan support for the region, and especially Taiwan. This was even true back in the days of autocratic rule under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). With the shift to democratic governance on the island state, this support has only grown stronger and more enduring.
Taiwan and America will hold critical national elections in the coming fourteen months. If, as is projected, Vice President Lai Ching-te (賴清德) replaces Madame Tsai (蔡英文) and Joe Biden rallies to gain a second term in the White House, all will be well. If not, things could get ugly in a hurry. A KMT victory would likely return to a much friendlier — and less critical — approach to its giant neighbor across the Taiwan Straits. Should Mr. Trump return to power, his vengeance campaign would likely ripple through American politics, as well as international relations.
In sum, American presidential politics, as well as shifting trends in East Asia, are cause for closer attention and concern. My best hope is that a careful and sensible American response to the myriad challenges in East Asia — especially in preventing PRC adventurism toward Taiwan — would open up new vistas for regional cooperation with our friends across the Pacific. We have fought numerous wars in the region over the past seven decades. Future policy could shore up a coalition of friends and allies, while making it clear that hostile aggression against them will be met with a prudent but sharp response.
I am an optimist by nature, so I can envision a future with more open societies in Asia, warranting close and friendly political and economic ties. We have cemented our reputation as an anchor of support and stability across the Pacific. If we can stay the course, the future will be bright for our friends and neighbors, as well as our own young men and women, who would pay a terrible price if the older generation cannot manage the challenges we face in East Asia.
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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