It’s high time Taiwan’s leaders understood that the American president is not their friend.
How quickly things have changed. Less than six months ago Taiwan was abuzz with warm vibes for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, this after his precedent-setting telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his subsequent comments casting doubt on the United States’ longstanding commitment to the “one China” policy. Coupled with earlier Trump statements critical of Chinese mercantilism and Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, the two initiatives seemed to hold out the strong possibility of a new and much warmer era in U.S.-Taiwan relations — an era that harkened back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Taiwan was an important element in the U.S.’s anti-China strategic posture in the western Pacific.
Today, however, ties between Washington and Taipei seem to be at their lowest ebb since 2006 or 2007. That was when President George W. Bush agreed to act as a Chinese sub-contractor in pushing back against Chen Shui-bian’s pro-independence policies. It’s not so much that President Trump has anything against Tsai personally; it’s more that he is so entranced by the authoritarian leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, so much so that he now appears to see Tsai as a dispensable nuisance on the road to a far bigger prize — the strategic neutralization of a nuclear-armed North Korea, which threatens the United States.
Unfortunately for Tsai and for Taiwan as a whole, it has taken her far too much time to pick up on this — if indeed she even has. The clearest indication of this came in late April when she told an interviewer from the Reuters news agency that she was, in theory, open to another telephone conversation with Trump. In doing so she irresponsibly opened herself up to a Trumpian rejection, which predictably came — in another Reuters interview — less than 48 hours later.
“Look,” Trump said. “My problem is I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi …. So I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him. I think he’s doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first (before speaking to Tsai).”
Trump’s China trajectory
In the immediate wake of the two Reuters interviews, a number of Tsai partisans tried to pin the blame for Tsai’s embarrassment on the news agency itself, accusing it using cheap tactics to entrap the Taiwanese president. Maybe so. But the fact remains that Tsai said what she did despite having direct access to all the relevant facts concerning Trump’s attitudes toward China and Taiwan. Consider the following:
- On January 7, the New York Times reported that Trump’s son-in-law and White House counselor-designate Jared Kushner was in protracted talks with China’s well-connected Anbang Insurance Group to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to redevelop the jewel in the crown of his family’s fading Manhattan real estate empire. While the efforts eventually fell through, that didn’t stop the Chinese government from granting Trump’s daughter Ivanka (Kushner’s wife) valuable Chinese trademarks for her jewelry, bags and spa services brands. It is difficult to conceive of a more compelling sign of commercial inter-dependence between China on the one hand and the Trump White House on the other.
- On February 9, Trump told Xi in a telephone call that he unreservedly accepted the “one China” policy, under which the United States acknowledges China’s position that Taiwan is part of its territory, without necessarily agreeing with it. The call was widely reported, and was meant to make it clear that Trump had no intention whatsoever of treating Taiwan as an independent political entity.
- During the weekend of April 6, Trump hosted Xi at his Mar-a-Largo resort in Florida in their first face-to-face meeting. While the talks were overshadowed by a U.S. missile strike against a Syrian military facility, the bottom line was yet another substantial improvement in U.S.-China ties: the American side made it clear that it was no longer interested in punishing allegedly unfair Chinese commercial behavior, amid new indications that it wanted to enlist Chinese support in confronting the North Korean nuclear threat.
In and of themselves these developments were clear indications that Trump was cozying up to the Chinese government in a way that was virtually unprecedented for any U.S. president. Even more revealing, however, was the unmitigated support he was giving to other authoritarian regimes all around the world — to Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation, for example, or Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey (whom Trump famously congratulated after Erdogan’s contested win in an anti-democratic referendum) or Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines. By doing things like inviting Duterte to visit the White House, Trump was making it clear that he had little or no sympathy for supporting democratic values among American allies and friends. Particularly for a country like Taiwan, whose most important American political asset is incontestably its strong commitment to democratic governance, this trend should have been the mother of all red flags. But not for Tsai Ing-wen. As her disastrous interview with Reuters clearly showed, she missed this signal completely.
China tightens the screws
Making things even worse for Tsai is that during her time in office, China has shown no hesitation whatsoever about tightening its screws on Taiwan — ostensibly to punish her for refusing to accept the so-called “1992 consensus,” under which Taiwan acknowledges that it is part of China. The Chinese pressure began just a month after Tsai’s inauguration in May of 2016 when Beijing cut off all formal communication with Taipei. It has continued unabated since, featuring hostile initiatives like stepped up military surveillance missions around Taiwanese territory, new attempts to constrict Taiwan’s international space, and the deployment of DF-16 missiles against targets in Taiwan.
All of this puts Tsai in a particularly invidious position. As hostile as the George W. Bush administration was toward Chen in 2006 and 2007, Taiwan could at least take comfort from the fact that the United States was still keeping its strategic distance from Beijing. Under Trump however, this is no longer the case. A clear indication of this came in early May when the New York Times reported that under Pentagon orders the U.S. Navy had abruptly stopped conducting sail-by exercises near hotly contested artificial Chinese islets in the South China Sea — despite earlier criticisms of the Chinese island-building exercise by Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. This represented a humiliating about face for American policy in the western Pacific — symbolic to be sure, but still indicative of just how disinclined Washington has become to confront Chinese power on issues China deems important.
What Taiwan should do now
Donald Trump will not be the American president in perpetuity. He is up for re-election in 3 ½ years, and in the meantime there is an increasing crescendo of speculation that he will not be able to finish out his first term. When conservative commentators like former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough began alluding to Trump’s possible issues with dementia, you know that open discussion of invoking the 25th Amendment cannot be far behind. The 25th Amendment is the constitutional provision allowing for the replacement of an American president on the grounds of physical or mental disability.
But 25th Amendment or not, it is now incumbent upon Taiwan’s leadership to take concrete steps to deal with the baleful consequences of the Trump presidency. Always assuming that President Tsai has now learned her lessons about Trump’s limitations, there are two areas she should be thinking about.
In Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tsai has a very sympathetic partner — a partner who not only is extremely wary of Chinese expansionism in the western Pacific, but is also very much aware of the potentially destructive nature of Trump’s Asian policies — commercial, military and strategic.
In the first instance, Tsai should do everything in her power to tighten Taiwan’s already promising relations with Japan. In Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tsai has a very sympathetic partner — a partner who not only is extremely wary of Chinese expansionism in the western Pacific, but is also very much aware of the potentially destructive nature of Trump’s Asian policies — commercial, military and strategic. Anyone doubting this need only look at his hostile reaction to Trump’s rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership — a move that seamlessly ceded large swathes of the Asian commercial playing field to effective Chinese control.
In parallel with tightening Taiwan’s relations with Japan, Tsai should also be working overtime to cultivate the goodwill of the traditional American foreign policy establishment, particularly the large number of American congress people who are not only extremely wary of Chinese expansionism, but are also clearly sympathetic to Taiwan’s strong commitment to democratic values. These are people who will not be easily swayed by Trump’s perversely short-sighted China policies. When Trump himself eventually leaves the scene — and leave the scene he must — they will still be around to help Taiwan survive. Their support should be cultivated, both now and in the future.
Top photo courtesy of the Donald J. Trump official Facebook page.