A regular feature of Taiwan Sentinel, ChinaWatch examines developments in China in the areas of internal politics, economics and trade, geopolitics and Taiwan engagement and analyzes their advantages or disadvantages for Taiwan’s standing in the region and the world. This feature is based on the premise that what happens in China has direct relevance for the durability of Taiwan’s de facto independence. ChinaWatch is updated monthly.
American Paralysis and Taiwan’s Future
As Donald J. Trump closes in on the first anniversary of his presidency, it is possible to begin evaluating the immense damage he has already done to the U.S.’ standing in the world. Almost all the elements of the liberal democratic order that the United States erected in the immediate wake of World War II have now been dismantled, either in whole or part. American support for NATO as a credible bulwark against Russian inroads into eastern and western Europe? Check. American leadership on crucial international issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation? Check. American opposition to dictatorships and fealty to democratic values? Check. American championing of free trade regimes at both the regional and international levels? Check.
Nowhere has Trump the disrupter been more active than in the Asia Pacific region, where even before his presidency, the U.S. was already being forced to come to terms with the rapid rise of China, and its baleful implications for American security relationships with countries like Japan and South Korea. Only a few weeks into his presidency, Trump announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation commercial grouping, whose main purpose was to put China on notice that it would not be allowed to spread its wings in East and Southeast Asia with impunity. This was followed by a humiliating diplomatic dance with China itself, which not surprisingly led to rising South Korean and Japanese doubts about America’s long term commitment to its once robust presence in the region.
In the medium to long term of course, no country is more impacted by the U.S.’ receding Asia profile than Taiwan, which is almost entirely dependent on American protection to ward off escalating Chinese challenges to its liberal political order and its de facto independence. For almost seven decades now, American arms sales and American security protection have kept Taiwan free of Chinese control, despite the high cost involved. Even after the transfer of American diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the security mantle remained largely in place, though it must be said that from time to time some American decision makers (Henry Kissinger for example) quietly pushed for its removal.
As for Trump himself, he has been almost totally silent on Taiwan’s future, at least since December 2016 and January 2017, when his precedent-setting telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, and his subsequent trashing (albeit temporary) of the U.S.’ longstanding “one China” policy raised hopes of a new and more vibrant U.S.-Taiwan relationship. In recent months however, fears have grown apace that for an acceptable political price — meaningful Chinese pressure on North Korea, for example — Trump might be prepared to throw Taiwan under the bus, regardless of the consequences. Trump’s preference for dictatorial leaders including Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines and of course Xi Jinping in China itself have only stoked these fears. So too, for that matter has his contempt for history, which at the end of the day acts as a powerful incentive for the kind of transactional geopolitics he clearly finds appealing.
Faced with Trump’s contempt for the liberal democratic world order abroad and appalled by his overtly nationalistic politics at home, leading members of the American commentariat have recently begun envisioning scenarios for a premature end to his presidency. A recent example of this came in early December when Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s popular Morning Joe TV program, raised the possibility (not for the first time) that Trump is suffering from dementia. His comments followed Trump’s difficulties in completing short remarks on America’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. For its part the White House vigorously denied that any mental impairment was at play in Trump’s performance; it attributed his problems to a severe case of “dry mouth,” which apparently prevented him from speaking as clearly as he otherwise might have wished.
Scarborough’s comments — and those of people like Republican Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee (who have also cast doubts on Trump’s ability to think cogently) — are readily understandable within the context of a growing realization that for every day Trump remains in the White House, it will take many more days — five, 10, even 20 — to undo the damage he is doing to the U.S.’ standing in the world and the American project at home. In the end though, wishing and hoping cannot change a fundamental reality: the chances of Trump being forced out of office before the completion of his first term in January 2021 are virtually nil. Consider the following factors.
Constitutionally, there are two ways Trump can be forced out of office.
The first is impeachment. This involves the House of Representatives mustering a majority to put him on trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict him. On present form there is every reason to believe that the House could vote for a trial, not least because House Democrats are out for Trump’s blood, and stand a fairly good chance of having the numbers to do something about it if present predictions about the disposition of the November 2018 elections remain on course. Indeed, such is the loathing for Trump’s policies in large parts of the United States, that even allowing for Republican-inspired gerrymandering and voter suppression in several American states, a Democratic majority in the House may now be a foregone conclusion.
In the Senate however, the impeachment scenario faces far choppier waters. Even allowing for a huge anti-Trump vote in the 2018 mid-terms, it is highly unlikely that the Democrats will be able to emerge with anything more than 50 or 51 seats. While it is true that some Republicans might be persuaded to vote with the Democrats in any prospective impeachment showdown, the maximum number of votes that pro-impeachment forces could realistically be expected to muster is probably no more than 54 or 55. This is obviously far short of the 67 needed for conviction.
Could anything happen to convince enough Senate Republicans vote against Trump? It remains to be seen of course what Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump administration and the Russian government of Vladimir Putin will come up with. But even allowing for some sort of smoking gun, it is difficult to envision the Mueller probe changing many minds. On the contrary, the vast majority of Senate Republicans seem more than willing to stick with Trump whatever the special counsel finds. Anyone doubting this need only look at their eagerness to go along with Trump on issues like health care and tax reform, which are opposed by the public at large.
The second constitutional provision that allows for dismissing Trump from office involves leveraging the 25th amendment, which stipulates that the vice-president and a majority of the Cabinet can oust a sitting president on the grounds that he is physically or mentally unable to discharge his duties. Once again, the chances of this happening seem extremely remote, even allowing for further indications that Trump’s mental acuity may be deteriorating. To be sure, a real health emergency like a serious coronary episode could well result in Trump’s ouster from the presidency. But in less extreme circumstances, the robust expressions of pro-Trump loyalty articulated by almost all Cabinet members strongly suggest that he will remain in office at least until his first term expires in 37 months.
With all of this in mind, it now seems almost certain that the world in general and Taiwan in particular will have to come to terms with three more years of Trump, whether they like it or not. Above and beyond the unpredictable nature of Trump’s predilection for transactional deal making, the main danger for Taiwan in all of this is the continuing growth of Chinese power in the region, unhindered by a substantial pushback from the U.S. In and of itself, this is not enough to guarantee Taiwan’s capitulation to China’s continuing demand that it renounce its claims to sovereignty and accept unification with China. Over the longer term though, Taiwan could well begin to feel that it has no choice but to cut a deal with Beijing, lest it lose all leverage in determining its fate. This would be particularly true if a fading American presence in East and Northeast Asia became a permanent feature of the world political order, and the once compelling lure of democratic values continued to wither away. Taiwan has not yet reached the point of no return when it comes to Chinese pressure, but with Trump in charge of the White House, some would argue that the worm has started to turn.
China Steps Up Northeast Asian Air Patrols
China says it has begun flying military patrols in Northeast Asian areas that had previously been off limits to it.
Without specifying the precise routes, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force spokesman Shen Jinke said the patrols involved reconnaissance planes, fighter jets, and early warning and control aircraft. He said the new routes traversed unnamed areas over the Yellow and East seas near the Korean Peninsula.
The Chinese aerial initiative appears to have been a direct response to heightened American and South Korean military maneuvers in the area. Those maneuvers came against the background of escalating tensions over North Korea’s ambitious nuclear and intercontinental missile development programs, which the U.S. regards as a fundamental threat to its security.
While the Trump administration in Washington has continued pressing Beijing to push North Korea to scale those programs back, it appears to be giving up hope that it will ever do so in a meaningful way. In early December U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the world body that if China failed to end its critical oil exports to North Korea, the U.S. would do so itself — a threat that might be difficult to carry out, at least without provoking armed conflict in the region.
Taiwan says it has been watching the development of expanding Chinese air patrols closely. Any uptick in Chinese aerial activities in its immediate vicinity is viewed as a serious threat to its own security. Since the accession to office of Taiwanese President Tsai in May 2016, Chinese aircraft have continually skirted Taiwanese territory, prompting aggressive counter-measures by the Taiwanese air force.
China Threat on Taiwan Port Calls: Low Risk, High Reward
A senior Chinese diplomat in the U.S. has threatened that Taiwanese port calls by American naval ships would prompt a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
The Dec. 8 comment by Minister Li Kexin came less than two weeks after congressional passage of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which among other things says that U.S. government officials should evaluate the possibility of renewing calls by American naval vessels to Kaohsiung and other Taiwanese ports. The port calls were suspended more than 40 years ago in the wake of America’s declared intention to shift its recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Even without Li’s statement, it seems highly unlikely that the U.S. would have thought seriously about renewing Taiwan port calls by American naval vessels. A succession of American administrations has been extremely cautious about incurring China’s wrath on Taiwan-American military cooperation, particularly in the case of symbolic actions, which have no real military significance. Taiwanese port calls by American naval vessels fit this category to a tee.
Following Li’s statement of course, the chances that such visits could be considered seriously have dropped to virtually zero. Ever eager to enlist Chinese support in confronting North Korea’s ambitious nuclear and intercontinental missile development programs, the last thing the Trump administration needs now is to get into a confrontation with Beijing over a largely meaningless issue. Even on relatively meaningful issues — continuing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, for example — it has treated Beijing with kid gloves.
Li’s statement was very carefully calibrated, in that it didn’t threaten the U.S. for the consequences of a possible American action, but rather Taiwan, which would have been the action’s passive beneficiary.
In this sense the statement was a masterpiece of low risk, high reward diplomacy — this because it effectively put the kibosh on closer U.S.-Taiwan ties without in any way opening China to charges that it was meddling in internal American affairs. Instead it indirectly made the case that this was a purely Chinese matter, given China’s insistence that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory.
Lee Sentencing: More Psychological Pressure from Beijing
The sentencing of a Taiwanese human rights activist to five years in a Chinese prison for “state subversion” marks another uptick in Beijing’s continuing campaign of pressure and intimidation against the Tsai government, which continues to resist China’s demands that it accept the principle of Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.
Lee Ming-che received the sentence in a Hunan court room in late November, after his earlier conviction there on charges of conspiring with a Chinese confederate to foment a “Western color revolution” in China through the dissemination of articles, videos and books attacking the Chinese communist regime.
Lee was picked up by Chinese authorities in March after entering China via Macau. A community college worker closely aligned with Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, he had previously conducted online lectures on Taiwan’s democratization for Chinese citizens and managed a fund for political prisoners on China. While some of his activities may have taken place on Chinese territory, his conviction on the “state subversion” charges — a first for a Taiwanese national in China — has raised fears among Taiwanese activists that any social media postings on China they might have engaged in could expose them to criminal liability should they visit China.
Since Tsai assumed office 19 months ago, China has been engaged in a wide-ranging effort of Taiwan de-legitimization, featuring disinformation campaigns against her administration, and pinpoint pressure on foreign governments to try to limit Taiwan’s already narrow international space. The latest example of this came on Dec. 11, when China conducted another “Taiwan encirclement patrol” on the fringe of Taiwanese territory. The patrols normally involve the deployment of fighter jets, bombers and surveillance aircraft, aimed at Taiwanese defenses and intimidating the Tsai government.
The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense said that aerial and maritime assets had been dispatched to monitor the latest Chinese patrol, which took place over the Miyako Strait to the south of Japan and in the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.
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