American President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise telephone conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2 and his subsequent criticism of the longstanding one-China policy hold out the prospect for at least a modest re-set in U.S.-Taiwan relations. But Trump, ever the trans-actionist, may have other plans.
With the election of Donald J. Trump as U.S. president, the world is in unchartered territory. Trump will become the first American president never to have served in government or the military. As a television reality show host and New York-based real estate mogul he never had to develop a coherent set of policy positions on crucial domestic or international issues. His lack of intellectual curiosity adds an important layer of uncertainty to his outlook. While he did come forward with a number of strong policy statements during his 19-month presidential campaign — Mexicans are rapists, and need to be walled off from the United States; Muslims are terrorists and need to be denied entry into American territory; a succession of American leaders has systematically weakened the American economy by being suckered into inequitable trade deals by predatory foreign interests — these statements may well be hyperbole, if only because they appear to have been inspired more by the perceived prejudices of the American electorate than by the deep-seated and carefully considered beliefs of their author.
It is still too early to tell.
Foreign policy is arguably the murkiest component of this unfathomable Trumpian world view. At least on the surface, Trump’s foreign policy positions — those few he has taken the trouble to articulate — seem to represent a nearly across the board refutation of the great power principles that have guided American decision makers for the past 70 years. These principles include the centrality of the western alliance in managing world politics, a consistent adherence to free trade, and the imperative of maintaining a robust American presence in East and Northeast Asia.
But Trump appears to have turned his back on all of them. In marked contrast to a long succession of American presidents, he has stated that he is not wedded to supporting NATO as a political and military bulwark against Russian expansion in central Europe, and indeed, that he sees Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a man he can do business with in the Middle East, even if it means allowing for an increase of Russian influence in the Baltics and other parts of the former Soviet Union.
Trump has also been consistently outspoken about the supposedly harmful nature of free trade, particularly the NAFTA and TPP agreements, which he sees (not entirely unreasonably) as weakening the American middle and working classes at the expense of their rivals in Asia and Latin America. Finally, he has lambasted Japan and South Korea for supposedly enjoying the benefits of the American defense shield in the western Pacific without paying their fair share for its upkeep. This point of view appears to open the door for South Korean and/or Japanese nuclearization, expanded Chinese influence in the region, or both. Not surprisingly it has emerged as one of the most controversial aspects of Trump’s still inchoate foreign policy vision.
All of which brings us to Trump’s now famous telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2. To say their talk made waves would not do justice to the frenzied reaction of the American foreign policy establishment. One after one, the good and great of Foggy Bottom and the upper east side of Manhattan accused the president-elect of undoing decades of sensitive diplomacy either out of pure ignorance, reckless adventurism or a rapacious desire to advance his business interests on a pending hotel project near the Taipei airport.
Evan Medeiros, President Obama’s former Asian affairs director on the National Security Council, was typical of the outrage, raising the prospect that the Trump-Tsai telephone call could lead to a catastrophic meltdown in Sino-American ties. “Regardless of whether it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative,” he told the Financial Times newspaper in the immediate wake of the call. “With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation for enduring mistrust and strategic competition for U.S.-China relations.”
Medeiros’ panicked reaction reflected the American foreign policy elite’s longstanding embrace of the fragile diplomatic construct that has governed the triangular relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan at least since 1979, when Washington transferred its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Based on the “one-China policy” (according to which, Washington acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China), the construct has largely satisfied Beijing, because it denies diplomatic legitimacy to Taiwan, but it has also benefited governments on Taiwan, because it offers Taiwan a deliberately ambiguous American security umbrella theoretically robust enough to cause Beijing to think twice before mounting an attack across the Taiwan Strait. Its major advantage for the United States has been to allow it to keep the peace in the region without simultaneously denying it the ability to pursue its interests in both China and Taiwan.
But conditions have changed markedly since 1979, when governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait saw themselves as rulers of a single Chinese entity that shouldn’t be divided. Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which didn’t even exist in 1979, is now focused almost exclusively on maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence, largely because it regards China as a wholly foreign entity to be kept at arm’s length. Ma Ying-jeou, the last Taiwanese leader to accept Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is part of China, paid for that belief by presiding over a crushing defeat of his China-friendly Nationalist Party (KMT) less than a year ago at the ballot box, and is today regarded as something of a joke among many Taiwanese. Underscoring his irrelevance, more and more of them see their identity in distinctly Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese) terms, not only because they distrust China, but also because it doesn’t matter very much to them anymore. Things are not what they were.
In and of itself the creation of this new Taiwanese identity would probably be enough to render the post-1979 American policy in the Taiwan Strait null and void. But there has been another development in the area that undermines it even more. This is the rapid accretion of Chinese military power. The American Defense Department believes China will be able to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan by 2020, this because of its serious commitment to military modernization and Taiwan’s parallel failure to build a defensive deterrent worthy of the name. Making matters even worse, China has shown itself increasingly willing to project its military power in the South China Sea, and raise its overall economic and diplomatic profile in the area. This increases the chances that sooner or later Beijing will tire of the considerable restraints inherent in the American diplomatic construct and move to impose its will on Taiwan unilaterally, particularly if it feels that the United States is either too weak or too disinterested to oppose it. It could be a matter of time.
All of which makes the Trump-Tsai telephone conversation so interesting. Critics of the call maintain that it was made without proper preparation by a man who doesn’t understand the diabolical complexities of the Taiwan-China-U.S. relationship. The unspoken implication here is that it can still be walked back, particularly after Trump comes up against the China savvy bureaucracy of the State Department and other executive branches on Jan. 20.
An Alternative Take
There is, however, an alternative way of looking at things. It is based on the following important indicators:
- While Trump may not have understood all the nuances of the China-Taiwan-American relationship when he spoke to Tsai, that doesn’t mean he was totally unaware of Taiwan’s situation. As far back as 2011 he went on Twitter to express his displeasure at the Obama administration’s decision to deny Taiwan’s request to purchase American-made F-16 C/D warplanes, which if nothing else suggests at least a general familiarity with the complex security architecture of the Taiwan Strait. The angry tweet he emitted in direct response to widespread criticism of the Tsai conversation — “interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call” — a further indication of his familiarity with the subject. Even more to the point is the anti-China tweet he issued on Dec. 4. It criticized China for its predatory trade policies and its aggressive stance in the South China Sea. Taken together with the Tsai conversation it seems to suggest that Trump is now considering a wholesale alteration in the “make no waves” policy that has governed U.S. relations with Taiwan and China for the past 37 years. This is obviously a significant departure.
- There is considerable evidence to suggest that the call with Tsai was very carefully considered. It appears to have been arranged by former U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, possibly with the help of Edwin Feulner, the former head of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with robust sympathy for Taiwan’s difficult situation. Reince Preibus, Trump’s designated chief of staff, may also have been involved. Significantly the call came not long after Trump met with Henry Kissinger, the doyen of American China impresarios, who has long believed that a joint Sino-American condominium is the best way to run world affairs. Trump’s apparent preference for Dole and Feulner’s pro-Taiwan views over those of Kissinger should send alarm bells ringing in the China-accommodationist precincts of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, particularly in light of the open-ended obeisance that most American leaders have traditionally shown toward the former secretary of state. Paradoxically or otherwise Kissinger was meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing at just about that time that Trump was conversing with Tsai Ing-wen.
- Trump is most definitely a foreign policy iconoclast, having surrounded himself with non-conventional thinkers on American foreign and security policy. One of the most non-conventional of all is Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn, who made his reputation on the back of intense Islamophobia coupled with considerable sympathy for Russian leader Vladimir Putin. (His main foray into the China field revolved around his somewhat controversial assertion linking Beijing with support for radical Islamists). Flynn, is now the National Security Advisor-designate, poised to have a major impact on the direction and execution of U.S. foreign policy. Another is Trump’s behind the scenes consigliere, former Breitbart News head Steve Bannon, whose anti-Muslim views are just as strong as Flynn’s. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of State, possesses the strong business acumen that Trump professes to venerate, and also brings to the table considerable familiarity with Russia, having done a number of major deals there for Exxon Mobil. As far as Asia is concerned, Trump’s advisors include a number of strong Taiwan advocates. Leading the pack here is Peter Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, whose books and films have been highly critical of China’s alleged currency manipulation and its assertive behavior in the South China Sea. On Dec. 21 Navarro was named to head up a newly created office (the National Trade Council) that will oversee American trade and industrial policy. His appointment is a clear signal that Trump’s China-wariness may set the tone for his entire foreign policy. Another apparent Trump intimate is longtime Pentagon hawk Michael Pillsbury whose recent book on the Chinese military (The Hundred Year Marathon) paints an extremely alarming picture of Chinese aggressiveness, and castigates the United States for having been continually taken in by its deliberately misleading policy pronouncements. Still another is Matt Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Marine officer with considerable on the ground experience in China; Pottinger will be the senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, where he will work under Flynn.
- Not least because of Bannon’s strong influence upon him, Trump seems capable of breaking with longstanding American practices in the foreign policy field _ not only as far as Europe and Russia are concerned, but also with China, which for the past 40 years has been given what is basically a free pass from the American foreign policy establishment, despite its many transgressions both at home or abroad. During the campaign Trump repeatedly castigated China for its alleged currency manipulation and other predatory trade policies and promised that if elected he would impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States. While this may well have been typically overblown campaign rhetoric, the fact remains that he was elected on a mandate to blow things up — “to drain the (Washington) swamp” as he pithily put it to his followers. With his stridently nihilistic views, Bannon seems uniquely well positioned to push him in this direction. If so then the U.S. and Taiwan will embark on a new and more intimate course and ties with China will suffer, notwithstanding the seemingly sacrosanct status of the Sino-American relationship.
To be sure, a lot could still happen to prevent a U.S.-China meltdown and a parallel improvement in Washington’s ties with Taiwan. Among other things, the American business community, to say nothing of the American foreign policy establishment, will almost certainly fight such a prospect tooth and nail, enlisting their many friends in the media to help plead their case. Anyone doubting the media’s role here need only look at its panicked reaction to the Tsai-Trump phone call. A particularly telling example of this came on MSNBC, where star commentator Rachel Maddow warned that “this is the way that wars start” even as she vociferously condemned Trump for his foreign policy ignorance. Never mind of course that Maddow’s ostensibly progressive views are much more in tune with Taiwan’s democratic ethos than with China’s repressive one. This she never brought up.
A Transactional World View
In addition to the media, there is also the issue of Trump’s transactional world view, which holds that everything comes down to deal making and everything is always on the table. Trump himself put Taiwan firmly in this deal-making category on Dec. 11 when he told Fox News that the United States should not now “be bound by a ‘one China policy’ unless (the italics are mine) we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” Given this brazen conditionality and its troubling implication that Trump sees Taiwan as nothing more than a bargaining chip, it is certainly not out of the question that he could eventually be tempted to do a deal inimical to Taiwanese interests, particularly if he saw a big enough return from it — something for example that enshrined his name in the annals of geopolitical or macro-economic folk-heroes for many generations to come. That Taiwan is a fully functioning democracy matters not a whit to him. His only concern is for himself.
Among other pressing issues, North Korea could well be the object for such a Trumpian deal. According to the Wall Street Journal, President Obama told Trump at a White House meeting shortly after his election that the single gravest threat to world peace and to American security that Trump will have to deal with is the rapid development of that country’s nuclear arsenal, including its ability to deliver those weapons to targets in South Korea and Japan via ballistic missiles. Making matters worse, the Journal said, Trump was also made to understand that Pyongyang is already close to obtaining the capability to extend the range of those missiles all the way to the northwest quadrant of the United States, including the cities of Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. Such a development, the Journal observed, would obviously be a geo-political game changer, particularly in light of the mercurial and unpredictable nature of the North Korean leadership.
Assuming that the Journal report is correct, Trump would have a substantial incentive to revisit his campaign bluster on China, particularly his oft-repeated promise to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States. This reflects the long held American belief that the only way to rein Pyongyang in is to contract North Korea control work to Beijing, because China and China alone can influence North Korean behavior to the benefit of the United States. Never mind of course that over the past 15 years this approach has rarely if ever proven successful. In calculating options for North Korean policy, that is mostly ignored.
This is where Trump’s transactional mindset enters the Taiwan equation. There is every reason to believe that at some point early on in Trump’s presidency (perhaps after yet another North Korean nuclear test), Beijing will approach him with a solemn promise to step up its economic and political pressure on Pyongyang to such an extent that it will have no choice but to disarm or otherwise dilute its nuclear capacity. China will do this in an extremely calculated way. To begin with it will emphasize the huge risks it is taking in confronting North Korea head on, including possibly destabilizing the North Korean regime to such an extent that it collapses, loosing millions of unwanted Korean refugees on China’s northeastern border, and setting the stage for the installation of a Pro-American government on the Korean peninsula. Almost certainly it would demand a considerable quid pro quo for taking such a risk, possibly involving Taiwan. Among other things this might involve a definitive end to American weapons sales to Taipei, or even worse, a grand bargain setting the stage for Taiwan’s eventual transfer to Chinese control.
Would Trump agree to such a deal? One reason to think he might is his apparent susceptibility to flattery and sycophancy, which reflects his insistently narcissistic personality and its constant need for affirmation. The Chinese are certainly aware of his psychology, and there is no reason to think that they wouldn’t exploit to the fullest it if they thought it could serve their interests. Trump’s vulnerability here would seem to be the greatest danger that Taiwan faces from his new administration, even allowing for his apparent anti-China bias and the pro-Taiwan views of some of his close advisors. Whether or not he eventually falls prey to it will be one of the more interesting questions of Trump’s presidency for anyone concerned with Taiwan in the months and years to come.