Recently, observers have reported seeing a palpable shift in an element of US foreign policy they describe as pro-Taiwan. There are two main reasons for such a deduction.
The first is the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) passed by Congress on February 28, 2018 and subsequently signed by President Donald Trump. The act formalizes the right of Americans, notably government officials, to visit Taiwan. Before this, top government officers did not (or at least only rarely) go to Taiwan. In practice, no truly top official did so. The TAA thus represents a change in policy in favor of Taiwan.
After the passage of the TTA and the president signing it into law, there were even heard comments that President Trump should go to Taipei and meet with President Tsai Ing-wen or at least have another telephone conversation with her.
Second, was the appointment of former US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, to the position of National Security Advisor to the president to replace H. R. McMaster.
Bolton has a long history of backing Taiwan. In years past, Ambassador Bolton was on the record saying that the US should restore diplomatic relations with Taiwan, that Taiwan ought to have a seat in the United Nations, and even that Washington might move US troops from Okinawa to Taiwan. More recently, he has hailed larger US arms sales to Taiwan.
Bolton also worked closely with Taiwan’s leaders, including former President Lee Teng-hui, to strengthen US-Taiwan ties. The US media labeled him an advocate of Taiwan’s self-determination and reported he had close connections with Taiwanese independence groups.
China’s response to both US moves signaled Beijing perceived a very unwanted or even dangerous makeover in America’s Taiwan policy. China’s Global Times newspaper that often articulates official policy wrote that China must “strike back” and mentioned using Beijing’s dealings with North Korea and Iran to do so.
The milieu of President Trump signing the TTA and appointing John Bolton as his national security advisor also appears relevant. Almost coinciding with these two decisions, Trump scolded China for raiding American intellectual property and destroying American jobs. He ordered a tariff on China’s imports into the United States. Trump’s actions were taken as serious matters and elicited blowback responses from China.
The situation looks grave. President Trump has seemingly undergone a change of heart and mind about Taiwan and China.
Is this really the case? There are reasons to think otherwise and to see the evidence cited for a US shift to a pro-Taiwan foreign policy as less worrying than it first appears and probably not deep or permanent.
Regarding the Taiwan Travel Act, Americans could already travel to Taiwan easily. They did not need a visa. The restriction on top officials going to Taiwan was not a formal one. Anyway, the State Department announced after the act passed that US policy towards Taiwan would remain the same.
Congress passed the TTA with voice votes during sessions when many members were absent. There was little debate on the subject. It was arguably considered neither controversial nor important.
The Act is not binding upon the president. It does not require him to send top officials to Taiwan or receive top officials from Taiwan. It has significance only if he chooses to cite it.
The TTA appeared to have great consequence because it was given a big buildup in Taiwan and by Taiwan’s friends in the United States. President Tsai and her administration were badly in need of some good news in view of their declines in opinion polls at home and a hint of support from the United States was heartily welcomed. Thus, they made much to-do of the act.
China reacted strongly to the TTA. This also made it appear important. Some media outlets in China spoke of a military response to the Act though such comments were no doubt spurred also by President Trump’s decision in December to allow “courtesy visits” by US Navy ships to Taiwan.
President Trump has undertaken a major US military repair and expansion. The lion’s share of this will be in Asia. But Taiwan has not been cited as playing a significant role, if any role at all.
John Bolton indeed has a history of making pro-Taiwan statements. But Bolton is also on record saying that he strongly supports President Trump’s foreign policy and that he does not want to oppose the president in public as some of his advisors have. In addition, Bolton is one of Trump’s recent appointments aimed at building a “unity cabinet” (meaning group of advisors) as opposed to distilling policy from a myriad of contending voices as was Trump’s earlier modus operandi.
Further, the history of US foreign policy decision-making indicates the president may choose to rely on either the Department of State or the National Security Council or both for guidance. As a matter of record, most presidents have depended heavily on one or the other.
Given the fact President Trump built a close personal relationship with Mike Pompeo when he was director of the CIA and recently appointed him Secretary of State, and has no such relationship with Bolton, he will likely get more input from the Department of State going forward.
Another factor to weigh when arguing whether the United States has adopted a pro-Taiwan policy is that America is in a campaign mode leading up to a critical election in November. Politicians and political parties love scapegoats and since China is a growing challenge to America, it tops the list.
Then, history tells us that the out-of-power party, the Democrats in this case, will gain a number of seats in the House of Representatives, likely enough to have a majority that will enable them to impeach President Trump. (They will unlikely get a conviction as the Senate will probably remain in Republican hands, but this would be a huge distraction to President Trump and would undercut his efforts to accomplish other goals on his agenda.) Trump thus has to prevent Democrats from winning more votes.
Ancillary to this situation is the fact the mainstream or liberal media in the US is very biased against China (fearing it will destroy the liberal world order in the course of its rise) and will doubtless be united during the campaign to castigate China and condemn Trump for his ties with China. President Trump needs to head this off and picking a spat with China by adopting some pro-Taiwan policies will certainly do this.
This is not an unusual situation. Ronald Reagan advanced pro-Taiwan policies during his first election campaign. George H. W. Bush sold top-of-the line US fighter planes to Taiwan during his second campaign. Bill Clinton spoke of memorable visits to Taiwan. George W. Bush spoke strongly in support of Taiwan during his first presidential campaign. In every case, US relations with China improved once the election was over.
As a matter of fact, China is aware of this and discounts much of what American politicians say during election campaigns. Yet for reasons of face they have to respond with some angry words, which American leaders have learned to take in stride.
Then there is the matter of Taiwan’s alleged strategic importance to the United States. President Trump has undertaken a major US military repair and expansion. The lion’s share of this will be in Asia. But Taiwan has not been cited as playing a significant role, if any role at all.
US military leaders have meanwhile expressed dismay with Taiwan over its weak commitment to help the US by upgrading its military. They have asked Taiwan to spend at least 3 percent of its GDP on defense. President Tsai has talked of doing more, but has not so acted. Pentagon officials frequently remark: “If Taiwan is not willing to defend itself, why should America do it?”
President Trump also has to be aware of the fact that opinion polls in the US show that while Americans like Taiwan, they do not favor a US military engagement with China to protect the island. Anyway, Trump has assailed his predecessors’ expensive and pointless wars and has promised he will not follow their example.
Finally, President Trump and his advisors and supportive Republicans are acutely aware that President Tsai and her party are progressives that revile President Trump. The pro-Tsai administration press almost daily print tirades against Trump, some that they originate and many that they parrot from the anti-Trump Western liberal media.
President Trump and his foreign policy team as well as Trump voters thus have good reason to dislike the ruling administration in Taiwan and the Democratic Progressive Party. Hence, they ask, why not regard Taiwan as a “card” to play when convenient, rather than a loyal friend?
One can conclude that the apparent US Taiwan policy shift is not as real or as significant as it appears.