After nearly six months of seeing giant shifts in one direction and then the other in Donald Trump’s Taiwan policy, many observers are wondering what is to come next. Might there be another announcement of consequence or even a new policy?
This is difficult to predict given that President Trump does not signal what he will do. He considers this bad form. President Obama did this and US adversaries took advantage.
Likewise, President Trump declines to talk about his foreign policy strategy or even hint of a “Trump doctrine.” His modus operandi is to negotiate deals. He is described as a “transactional president.”
He also believes that wrecking old ideas or policies is the best way to make new ones: destroy and start anew.
Here is the record so far:
On December 2, 2016, president-elect Trump took a telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This broke protocol and signaled that he did not accept the well-established US policy of adhering to the one-China formula for maintaining good relations with Beijing.
He again rattled China policy wonks when soon after this, he declared that that he “would not be dictated to” by China and cited Beijing’s horrible trade policies.
Then he dropped another bomb. Less than a fortnight after his conversation with President Tsai he stated that he didn’t “see why the US has to be bound by the one-China policy unless he can deal with China on other things…”
President Tsai’s supporters, especially Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) hardliners, were elated. Many perceived President Trump favored Taiwan and perhaps even approved of their goal of Taiwan’s independence.
Coincidently, or not, in his closing days in office, President Obama signed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that contained a new provision expanding the scope of America’s military exercises with counterparts in Taiwan. Then he signed a bill called the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act. Both were aimed in an unfriendly manner at China.
It appeared President Obama had “set up” Trump to have continued adverse relations with China. Did he want to amplify Trump’s tensions with Beijing to the point of creating a permanent conflict? Clearly Obama felt animus toward Trump and did not wish him well. Nor did he like China.
In the meantime, some of Trump’s supporters pushed for better relations with Taiwan, suggesting larger arms sales among other things. Clearly the Republican Party favored Taiwan and pushed for some tangible measures to demonstrate this.
After Donald Trump was inaugurated president on January 20, 2017, the Tsai administration and the DPP stalwarts continued to have faith. To some, President Trump was their “savior.”
But there were doubts. President Tsai had supported Hillary Clinton during the campaign. The DPP was a center-left socialist-inclined party. Many of Tsai’s foreign supporters espoused the US left’s line that was hostile in the extreme toward Trump. The pro-DPP media in Taiwan was anti-Trump. Tsai’s progressive policies didn’t accord with Trump’s agenda for change. Trump had assailed Taiwan for causing some of America’s trade deficit.
Some feared Trump, being a negotiator president, would use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to get something from China. He would play the so-called “Taiwan card.” Some even thought out loud: “Taiwan for a trade deal with Beijing.”
Then apprehension became reality. On February 9, President Trump, in a telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, affirmed the US would honor the one-China policy. The White House acknowledged that the conversation was at President Xi’s request. Apparently, a deal had been struck.
President Tsai and her party were distressed.
But there was some solace: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that America’s Taiwan policy was based on the Taiwan Relations Act, the three communiqués (with China) and also President Reagan’s Six Assurances. Adding the latter indicated greater support for Taiwan than had been usual (among past administrations).
Secretary Tillerson further stated that “the people of Taiwan are friends and should not be treated as a bargaining chip” and that US commitment to Taiwan is “both legal and a moral imperative.”
Pundits also noticed that President Trump had agreed to the one-China policy, not the one-China principle that defines Taiwan as a part of China. Some said the former means only that the US agrees only to recognize the government in Beijing as the legal government of China.
But then the tide shifted again.
President Tsai broached the idea of an “upgraded” strategic partnership relationship with the US that would apply to regional problems. But Washington did not cotton to the idea.
Then President Trump declared that he would speak to President Xi before engaging with Taiwan. He didn’t want to “cause difficulty” for China’s leader.
Trump supporting Taiwan’s status quo was not unexpected. Thus, it will likely not harm US convivial relations with China.
US foreign policy officials meanwhile opined President Tsai should accept the 1992 Consensus (which says there is but one China though there are different interpretations of “China”).
Even more shocking, it was rumored that the Trump administration planned to sign a “fourth communiqué” with China during the April 2017 Trump-Xi meeting in Mar-a-Lago, Florida. It was said that Henry Kissinger had advised President Trump to reach a formal executive agreement with China accepting in writing the one-China policy while pledging to limit arms sales to Taiwan.
Thus, Taiwan was again administered a serious dose of shock treatment.
Then still another turnabout! The communiqué did not happen. In fact, Taiwan was not mentioned during the talks between the two presidents.
President Trump apparently concluded, or this may have been his thinking all along, that maintaining the status quo regarding Taiwan comported with pursuing America’s national interests and that would be his policy, voiced or not. If so, the preceding events may be seen as simply reflecting Trump’s modus operandi of “breaking the mold” to start better negotiations and to not give away his goals.
There are plenty of good reasons, after all, to believe that Trump wants to keep the status quo vis-à-vis Taiwan.
First, abandoning Taiwan, especially in the face of China’s military pressure, would destroy US credibility with its Asian allies and wreck the balance of power between Washington and Beijing in East Asia. It would in essence end America’s role as an Asian power.
Specifically, it would allow China’s navy to break out of the so-called first island chain barrier and give it full-range access to the mid-Pacific and then on to points close to the US. This would create an existential danger the US.
Second, in the context of President Trump restoring America’s military power, especially his emphasis on building ships and enhancing the clout of the US Navy (that is more relevant in Asia than elsewhere), Taiwan has a potential role to play.
Expressly, Taiwan has something to say over territorial issues in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It has territorial claims there, some of which it can defend in court or otherwise if it has allies.
It might again become what many have long said it was — a “permanent aircraft carrier” (meaning a base) in the area. This has special resonance in view of China putting to sea an aircraft carrier battle group just recently.
Third, Taiwan serves an important intelligence function for the US. It is the site of intelligence posts that serve US intelligence agencies, in particular the NSA and the CIA. Its intelligence personnel supply astute analyses of Chinese politics that are not available elsewhere.
Fourth, not sustaining its “protectorate” role with Taiwan would mean the US is giving up any pretense of supporting democracy around the world. Spreading democracy is not one of Trump’s primary foreign policy goals; but Taiwan democratized coinciding with both America’s pressure and help and that is important. Also, the US was and is a democratic model cum beacon, and that cannot be junked, especially if it is to be the global leader it once was, which Trump wants to restore.
Does this mean there are serious differences between Trump’s America and China? Probably not. Trump supporting Taiwan’s status quo was not unexpected. Thus, it will likely not harm US convivial relations with China. Chinese leaders are focused on expanding their global influence via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project and linking up the world through trade. President Trump supports BRI. The Chinese have a critical party congress coming in a few months. Trump has not been the cause for China to fret.
One might think Beijing is not happy about US intelligence connections in Taiwan. But it has been going on for years and has not been a serious sore spot. Anyway, nobody these days believes friends don’t spy on each other.
Beijing says 2049 (the 100th anniversary of establishing the People’s Republic of China) is the deadline for resolving Taiwan’s reunification. That is a long time away in terms of international politics. Ten years in the future is quite distant.
It is also noteworthy Beijing adopted a hostile mien toward Taiwan’s new government after the 2016 election and applied considerable economic, diplomatic, and military pressure on President Tsai and her Party. Yet it has not done nearly what it can. Cross-Strait trade, which constitutes around 40 percent of Taiwan’s total, has actually increased. China has taken by a couple of small steps in injuring Taiwan diplomatically; but it can do a lot more. China can intimidate Taiwan much more seriously.
Finally, while President Tsai’s status quo policy does not include supporting unequivocally the 1992 Consensus, she does not seriously support independence and her status quo policy is not that far distant from Beijing’s.
She and President Xi are not moving in opposite directions. On the contrary, there seems to be some convergence. President Tsai recently broached a “three news” policy in dealing with China, which was part conciliatory and part putting the ball in Beijing’s court. She has also decided against granting political asylum to Chinese human rights advocates in Taiwan.
Statements issued by Beijing suggest a stalemate or at least a delay in pressing on the Taiwan issue until after the 19th Party Congress. Freezing the issue may last longer.
Cross-Strait relations are seemingly in a thawing mode, Korea and other matters stand out in terms of US-China relations, which have improved markedly and hold much promise, plus President Trump has to deal with other foreign policy issues (not to mention domestic problems), the Taiwan issue appears more important to the US than it has portrayed and less urgent to China. President Trump jacking Taiwan around and keeping it on pins and needles may have come to an end, at least for the time being.