With his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, President Trump has shown that he is not afraid of breaking away from protocol and forging a new path. Could his administration now use the facts on the ground in the Taiwan Strait to build a stronger relationship with Taiwan?
The Trump administration’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and subsequent plan to relocate its embassy there, has made headlines in recent weeks. Though the long-term impact of that decision is a matter of fierce disagreement, the Trump administration’s insistence on “recognition of reality” in Israel could set a new precedent for U.S.-Taiwan relations and potentially open new opportunities for the island-nation.
Taiwan (the Republic of China) has been a sovereign state separate from China (the People’s Republic of China) since 1949. It has its own government, armed forces, and currency. It has a defined territory, conducts its own foreign relations, and participates in international organizations. For decades, Taiwan has thrived as an independent nation despite diplomatic isolation from China. This reality can be the basis on which Washington shapes its future policies in the Taiwan Strait.
Now that President Trump has set a new standard, Washington has the power (should it choose to use it) to advance relations with Taipei through more meaningful legislation and diplomatic engagement. President Trump’s acceptance of “reality” demonstrates that he is willing to base political decisions on the actuality of certain international issues, regardless of the controversy that may surround such moves. Just as he has transitioned from a de facto to de jure state of mind regarding Israel’s capital, so too could he have a change of heart toward Taiwan — albeit on a smaller scale.
The situation and intricacies in the Taiwan Strait are obviously vastly different compared to the Middle East. The religious aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the powerful pro-Israel lobby that exists in the U.S., readily come to mind. Any significant shift in Washington’s relations with Taipei would therefore be considered too precarious or impossible, given China’s superpower status, something that cannot be said of the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the Trump administration could promote higher-level exchanges between American and Taiwanese government officials, further increase U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation, or even establish direct communication with President Tsai Ing-wen, all within the parameters of the actual circumstances in the Taiwan Strait. The possibilities are limitless; all it takes is an initiative from the White House to turn a new leaf in U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Any perturbations to the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait will undoubtedly have consequences. The security and stability of East Asia would be affected by developments in the Taiwan Strait. Furthermore, Beijing would certainly voice protests to any development that runs counter to its “one China” principle, and Sino-U.S. relations may temporarily fall into a lull. However, as seen in the past, any decision by Washington regarding Taiwan has largely gone unobstructed. As long as President Trump elevates relations through unofficial means, there should be minimized risk of China retaliating through military force.
In addition, President Trump is not afraid of breaking away from protocol and forging a new path, as proven by his informal phone conversation with President Tsai in December 2016. Despite the backlash and criticism, he remained resolute in his action. President Trump’s response to the aftermath of the Jerusalem debacle only solidifies his lack of consideration for international consensus. Even when the U.N. voted to condemn the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he exclaimed, “Let them vote against us…we don’t care,” and doubled down on the embassy move. His obstinacy, while problematic in many aspects, could facilitate closer U.S.-Taiwan relations. The dynamics in the Taiwan Strait may change and Taipei’s prominence as a steadfast ally in East Asia could increase.
In the aftermath of the Jerusalem decision, Trump has revealed his willingness to abide by political reality and serendipitously created a new framework on which forthcoming U.S.-Taiwan relations can be modeled. For Taipei, this is a new beginning that will hopefully bring about much-needed change.
Recent events have set the stage for a more robust alliance with Taipei, in line with President Trump’s “recognition of reality.” The unveiling of the 2018 National Security Strategy in late December suggests bright prospects for Taiwan. The report established American commitments in Asia, stating, “We will strengthen our long-standing military relationships and encourage the development of a strong defense network with our allies and partners.” This simple affirmation is likely to ease Asian nations’ qualms over U.S. regional leadership. It also assures a certain level of stability and normality.
The document also explicitly reiterates Washington’s obligations to Taipei, proclaiming, “We will maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our ‘One China’ policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.” Though this does not change anything, it is an unequivocal declaration of continued American support for Taiwan. This passage is a verbal guarantee that the U.S. will not abandon Taiwan after all.
Meanwhile, the paper takes a hawkish stance on China (in addition to Russia), mentioning that it is “developing advanced weapons and capabilities”, and “fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis.” This is a far cry from President Trump’s earlier tone while he was visiting President Xi Jinping in Beijing. While antagonizing China may not be the best choice given current strategic complexities, this new perspective demonstrates U.S. acknowledgment of impending apprehensions associated with an increasingly aggressive superpower.
Recent allegations of Beijing selling oil to Pyongyang have fueled doubts over China’s effectiveness in easing tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Since President Trump took office, he has been pushing China to be more unyielding toward North Korea. Almost one year later, China is still reluctant to place harsh sanctions on North Korea, as Pyongyang has been a longstanding ally of Beijing. This development shatters any confidence President Trump has in President Xi to pressure Kim Jung Un into ending missile tests and his nuclear program, in addition to encouraging dialogue between the three concerned parties. As a result, Washington should be more inclined to strengthen ties with Taipei, to make up for Beijing’s incapability as a reliable strategic partner.
Ultimately, the Trump administration’s diplomatic strategy is a double-edged sword: While it strives to prioritize American interests and strengthen ties with its allies, of which Taiwan is a vital one, it also isolates Washington from the international community and increases tensions in regions across the world. It is difficult to predict what President Trump may decide to do next regarding developments in the Taiwan Strait. However, in the aftermath of the Jerusalem decision, Trump has revealed his willingness to abide by political reality and serendipitously created a new framework on which forthcoming U.S.-Taiwan relations can be modeled. For Taipei, this is a new beginning that will hopefully bring about much-needed change.
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