Will Trump Jilt Taiwan?
Photo Credit: Reuters
By John F. Copper

Will Trump Jilt Taiwan?

Oct. 17, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The short answer to this question is yes. But why and the details are likely different from what many may think.

In recent weeks, some top members of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party, have warned her that US President Donald Trump will likely terminate and may even reverse America’s recent pro-Taiwan actions and policies. In other words, the present situation is too good to be true.

There are good reasons for them making the argument that good times wax and wane and the time for waning may be just ahead.

What are the reasons?

Trump did this before! During the election campaign in 2015-2016, candidate Trump lauded Taiwan and spoke of a change for the better in US-Taiwan relations if he were elected. Not long after his inauguration, President Trump took a telephone call from President Tsai, utterly shocking the American foreign policy community and China.

President Trump subsequently said that he would not allow China to dictate what he could and could not do and brought into question whether he would abide by the long-accepted US policy of one China (and Taiwan being a part of China).

But then Trump made a volte-face and said he supported the one China policy. Taiwan, of course, was deeply distressed.

Trump demonstrated that he was a transactional president and that his guiding principle is the US national interest. China was more important than Taiwan.

What followed was China’s President Xi visiting the United States, President Trump’s second home in Florida, and the two getting to know each other. It was a cordial and meaningful meeting. Problems affecting US-China relations were discussed and solutions agreed upon.

President Trump visited China 6 months later. The two leaders bonded a second time. President Xi made specific promises to help the US fix its trade deficit and corral Kim Jung-un to stop his nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems’ tests. There was a meeting of the minds and actions were expected to follow.

But there were some hitches.

Some of President Xi’s advisors and top members of the Chinese Communist Party and government suggested and pushed for a go-slow (some no doubt opposed going at all) policy. After all, China, like a host of nations around the world, had been (to use President Trump’s term) “ripping off” the US in trade for decades. It was in China’s national interest to continue doing so.

Some Chinese leaders also fretted about unemployment in China and linked it to social and political stability and the government and party’s continued public support and even their survival. Thus, to them, helping President Trump resolve the trade deficit was to them a risky thing to do.

Abetting the Trump administration to get a deal with North Korea was also not as easy for China as it might have appeared. China arguably had “maximum leverage” over President Kim. North Korea was heavily dependent on trade with China and China’s economic aid. It got most of its energy from China. But North Korea had always been a hard nut to crack and China could not exercise as much influence there as it wanted.

Also, China sought a solution that would not cause the North Korean government to implode. That was not in China’s interest. North Korea served as a buffer between China and South Korea where there were US military forces. Thus, Beijing had to pursue a careful, “balanced” policy. That would take some time.

On the part of the US, President Trump’s very successful economic policies had caused the US gross national product to grow faster and with that consumer demand for Chinese products grew.

The result was the US trade deficit worsened instead of improving and talks with Kim Jung-un plateaued. President Trump was not happy.

Adding to the downturn in US-China relations was the fact an election was coming in the United States and during campaigns China had long been a focal point for politicians that needed a whipping boy to blame for whatever. This was true in spades now since China had become a formidable challenge to the United States with its recent mammoth rise in economic and military clout.

Anti-China sentiment was especially strong on the political left and in the Democrat Party in the United States as a product of both seeing China as the destroyer of the liberal world order and its substituting its “China dream” for global harmony. The leftist Western media, Hollywood and American academe concurred and heartily nourished anti-China sentiments.

Donald Trump is a conservative pragmatist. To him and many in his administration, the Tsai administration and the DPP’s ideology ape that of the US Democrat Party and the anti-Trump liberal Western media.

President Trump found it expedient, cum necessary, to continue and even escalate his complaints on trade and a war of words with China. Some pundits even suggested it was a good thing Trump pushed the feud with China lest the Democrats take over the “bash China syndrome” and make it much worse, perhaps deadly and even permanent.

President Trump employed tariffs as his main weapon. This comported with Trump’s promise to make American great again and fit with his shock technique to get negotiations started. Other foreign policy tools would help.

Given this situation, for very understandable, though no doubt temporary reasons, the Trump administration found it convenient to play the “Taiwan card.” Thus Washington-Taipei relations became cozy on a number of fronts.

However, it was fairly certain the trade dispute with China would be resolved before too long. It was hurting both countries and the leaders, President Trump and President Xi, are negotiating presidents and respect each other. They both grasp the fact that the US trade deficit and the debt it has created are unsustainable. They want good US-China relations.

Hence, the “Taiwan card” may be said to be built on a house of cards and is about to be discarded (puns intended).

There is more. There is tangible evidence Taiwan is not Trump’s America’s good friend and ally.

Taiwan accounts for a portion of America’s trade deficit President Trump condemns; and the Tsai administration has done nothing meaningful to change that. Not much has been said about this … yet.

Likewise, Taiwan is not doing its share in defense burden sharing. The United States has long recommended (strongly at times) Taiwan spend 3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Further, American defense experts have let it be known they favor Taiwan adopting a defensive posture, and purchase weapons accordingly, that will make it possible for Taiwan to be of immediate help to the US military in the event of a crisis in the region.

Taiwan has not responded well. Its defense budget has fallen below 2 percent of GDP. Some say its military strategy comports with other objectives (mainly political) rather than cooperating with the US.

At the Pentagon, Taiwan is often likened to some European NATO countries that are free riders not paying their share of defense costs while expecting the United States to provide the lion’s share of funding. Some top military officers have been quoted saying “if the Tsai administration is not willing to finance its military enough so that it can help the US, why should America spill its soldiers’ blood to protect Taiwan?”

Adding to the argument against closer US-Taiwan ties, while the US population likes Taiwan and supports close relations including the Taiwan Travel Act and a new US representation office in Taipei and other friendly Trump administration actions, they do not back the use of the US military in the event of a conflict with China — especially if it is provoked by Taiwan as some Americans think it may be given President Tsai and her party’s constantly castigating China for its undemocratic political system, its military buildup, its bullying Taiwan, and more.

In the US foreign policy community, there is suspicion of the Tsai administration and radicals in her party that are regularly goading China while taking it for granted the US will come to the rescue if they start a crisis — just as President Chen Shui-bian did years earlier. Many think a major tenet of her China policy of opposing the “92 Consensus,” which allows each side to define China and which was a formula for peace that followed, is not wise. Anyway, the US supports it.

Finally, the Tsai administration is in many ways the polar opposite of President Trump in terms of the former’s leftist, progressive ideology and its politically correct vision. Likewise with its identity politics. All of these are propagated by the DPP while its friendly media includes a lot of anti-Trump news analysis.

Donald Trump is a conservative pragmatist. To him and many in his administration, the Tsai administration and the DPP’s ideology ape that of the US Democrat Party and the anti-Trump liberal Western media.

Last but not least, it certainly does not seem wise for Taipei to exaggerate the friendliness of the White House and ignore some facts: that President Trump has stated there will not be another telephone call, he did not send Taiwan’s best friend in the administration, John Bolton, to the opening of the new US diplomatic office building near Taipei, and does not mentioned Taiwan’s independence of China (which is obviously not his policy).

President Trump’s current tilt toward Taiwan can thus be expected to change because the current state of tension in Washington-Beijing relations will not last. America’s relationship with China is one that is too important to fail. The stability of the global financial system depends on it; so does controlling nuclear proliferation and terrorism and handling global environmental problems.

Meanwhile, basic differences between the US and Taiwan have been ignored and that cannot continue for long. Hence it is reasonable to think US-Taiwan relations are now at a high point and will wane.

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