The real significance of Donald Trump’s presidency for Taiwan lies in his sustained assault on the American democratic model.
The year 2008 marked a crucial turning point in China’s relations with the rest of the world. Part of this was reflected in its holding of the summer Olympic Games, which symbolized China’s emergence as a major world power, easily on a par with the countries of Western Europe and Japan. An even bigger part stemmed from the eruption of the world financial crisis. To many in China and elsewhere, the crisis suggested that something fundamental was amiss with the American capitalistic model: the model that had stood at the forefront of global economic development at least since the end of World War II. A corollary was that China’s system was better, largely because it was delivering economic growth rates in excess of 10 percent. As it happened, the growth would slow over time, but not the system’s attractiveness, particularly for countries in the developing world, which had long objected to American demands that they open themselves up to democratic practices — respect for human rights, for example, and transparent decision making.
At least in the West, the pied piper of the Chinese superiority argument was Canadian scholar Daniel Bell, who insisted that a system that supposedly promoted the best and the brightest without regard to democratic elections had a natural advantage over democracy, not least because of its constant leadership changes and its built-in vulnerability to cheap political grandstanding. He and some of his Chinese acolytes appeared to anticipate a moment when democratic institutions would become so dysfunctional that countries around the world would rush to embrace the Chinese model as the best solution to their problems. It was not so much a question of if, they believed, but rather one of when.
The election of Donald Trump
The election of Donald J. Trump as U.S. president on Nov. 8 may have been that moment. For an American president, Trump has absolutely mind-boggling shortcomings — a narcissistic personality, a total lack of experience in domestic and foreign affairs, an uneven business record, and a questionable relationship with the leader of a quasi-fascist kleptocracy. Nevertheless, he was able to convince the American electorate to send him to the White House. By any objective yardstick this was one of the four or five most consequential events in the history of the United States, easily on a par with the civil rights movement or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Even now, four months after the fact, it is still difficult to get a handle on it.
It is of course the United States itself that will be most affected by Trump’s presidency. Bolstered by a sympathetic Congress, Trump will be able to push ahead a program that in addition to standard Republican Party bromides — lower taxes for the wealthy, more incentives for business — undercuts some of the most crucial elements of the American democratic model. These include enthusiastic support for free trade and an unquestioning fealty to the model itself. Trump’s announcement that the United States will not participate in the Trans Pacific Partnership is a prime example of this tendency. So too, for that matter, are his on again off again remarks about the relevance of NATO and his bizarre sympathy for the wretched excesses of the Russian Federation.
The impact on Taiwan
One of the countries most likely to be undermined by Trump’s initiatives is Taiwan, which is obviously dependent on a robust American presence in the western Pacific to help maintain its de facto independence and resist China’s efforts to bring it under its sway. The United States does this not only by holding out the threat of military action if China attacks Taiwan, but also by standing at the head of an informal alliance of both democratic and China-wary countries in the region, whose principal geopolitical focus is confronting Chinese power. These include Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia. Both Vietnam and the Philippines were once on the list but in recent months they have begun to show signs of either switching sides entirely (in the case of the Philippines), or, in the case of Vietnam, veering toward the neutral.
Paradoxically or otherwise, Taiwan seemed to gain a lot of traction in the immediate wake of Trump’s election victory on Nov. 8. Not only did Trump have an unprecedented telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (on Dec. 2), but he famously questioned American support for the previously sacrosanct “one China” policy, which has guided the Sino-American relationship for the past 45 years. Particularly against the backdrop of his frequent attacks against Chinese mercantilism and Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, these developments appeared to presage a new and more promising era in U.S.-Taiwan ties — an era in which Taiwan would recover at least a portion of its former importance in the strategic disposition of the United States in East Asia.
In recent weeks however, this optimism has all but evaporated. Not only did Trump unreservedly embrace the “one-China” policy in a number of public statements, but through events like his well-publicized meeting with Chinese leader Yang Jiechi, he made it clear that he has little or no interest in ratcheting up tensions with Beijing over either trade or the South China Sea, despite his earlier rhetoric.
Short vs. long term
At least in the short term, Trump’s reversion to the Sino-American mean is not necessarily bad news for Taiwan. Though some on the island might disagree, a continuation of the status quo in relations between Beijing and Washington effectively removes an important incentive for China to attack across the Taiwan Strait. To be sure, China is always a threat to lash out, particularly if it feels that Taiwan is slipping out of its orbit, either geopolitically or culturally. But at least if the U.S. is still on board with the “one China” policy, it has a lot less reason to risk the considerable economic and geopolitical dislocation that such an attack would entail. Thus its likelihood fades.
Over the longer term however, Trump’s presidency represents an existential challenge to the open-ended continuation of Taiwan’s de facto independence. There are two important elements to this calculation. One is Trump’s anti-democratic mindset, whose very existence is a compelling advertisement for the Chinese political model — a phenomenon that at the end of the day will only further isolate an already threatened Taiwan. Consider, for example, his famous addiction to Twitter, which he has already abused (not necessarily in chronological order) to accuse his predecessor of a felony; to attack the fairness of the American judiciary; to impugn the American intelligence community; and to malign the U.S. press as “enemies of the people.” If this does not succeed in convincing emerging democratic states that the American model is sick, then nothing else will. It is difficult to calculate just how destructive it is over the long term.
Trump’s anti-democratic mindset […] is a compelling advertisement for the Chinese political model — a phenomenon that at the end of the day will only further isolate an already threatened Taiwan.
At the same time, Trump’s presidency is also undermining American power in the western Pacific. It is doing this by raising serious questions about the reliability of the U.S.’s long term commitment to the region. Trump’s renunciation of the Trans Pacific Partnership clearly pushed this narrative, as did his pointed campaign attacks on long-time American allies like Japan and South Korea for allegedly not paying their fair share to defend themselves. It is no wonder then, that in addition to the Philippines and Vietnam, a number of traditional American partners are now beginning to re-evaluate their ties to the United States, despite their fears of China. South Korea clearly belongs in this category, as do (at least provisionally) Japan and Australia, notwithstanding the late January/early February visit to Seoul and Tokyo by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to try to keep them on side. The bottom line in all of this is that under Trump, the U.S.’s standing in Asia is now at its lowest ebb in decades. China of course is doing its best to depress it even further, largely by presenting itself as a righteous alternative to the fading American star. Thus for example, at the recently concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Chinese President Xi Jinping went out of his way to tout the benefits of free trade — in stark contrast to the protectionist message favored by Trump. At the same time he also made it clear that China intended to honor its environmental commitments under the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement — again in contrast to Trump.
The problem for Taiwan in all of this is that it cannot long endure as an independent entity when it is both politically isolated and the favored object of Chinese revanchism. With the U.S. fading away, its survival options are scarce. Once the United States was there for it. Now its future is darker, and it may be left on its own.