Home / Articles / Trump and Taiwan: A Fresh Start or a Turn for the Worse?
American President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (Source: Gage Skidmore (left))
From the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign season, it was clear that the Republican Party envisioned changes in American policy toward Taiwan. Its convention adopted a platform that devoted a lengthy paragraph to Taiwan, noting the two nations’ shared values of democracy, human rights, free market economics, and the rule of law; opposing any unilateral steps to alter the status quo; pledging to defend Taiwan from attack, and affirming that all issues regarding its future must be solved peacefully and agreeable to the people of Taiwan. The platform also affirmed the six assurances given to Taiwan orally in 1982 by then-president Ronald Reagan, pledged the “timely sale” of defensive arms, including technology, to build diesel submarines, and full support for Taiwan’s participation in multilateral institutions.
This innocuous-sounding language masked several important changes. Among others, the Republican platform mentioned that the resolution of Taiwan’s status be agreeable to the people of Taiwan, with no mention of China’s view; previous diplomatic references had stated that any solution must be acceptable to both sides of the Taiwan Strait, in essence, providing the exponentially larger and more powerful People’s Republic with a veto. The platform’s pledge to defend Taiwan against attack goes far beyond the language of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which says only that the president and congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States. In addition, supporters of Taiwan’s effectively independent status were pleased to note that the platform’s mention of full participation in organizations such as the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. Previously, Chinese pressure had excluded Taiwan completely from the latter as well as from other organizations such as Interpol. Only in the past several years has Beijing allowed Taiwan to participate as an observer in the WHO, albeit contingent on explicit year-by-year approval by the PRC, thereby relegating it to a status below that of Hong Kong, whose inclusion in China is not contested. Hong Kong’s observer status need not be renewed annually.
By contrast, the Democratic Party’s platform contained a single sentence, “We are committed to a one China policy and the Taiwan Relations Act and will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues that is consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.” The language of the last phrase left worrisome ambiguity about who would be the judge of the best interests of the people of Taiwan, and what criteria they would use.
As all those with even a nodding acquaintance with American politics are aware, the platforms of the country’s political parties are apt to fall between the cracks of its planks after inauguration day. In this case, however, there were reasons to think that they would not be. Section 1254 of the fiscal year 2017 Defense Authorization Act, which had passed both houses of congress by large bipartisan majorities and was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, instructed the secretary of defense to conduct an annual program of senior military exchanges with Taiwan. It carefully specified that these include “activities, exercises, professional education events, or the like.” And a Taiwan Travel Act, H.R. 535, brought to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January 2017 “encourages” more frequent visits between officials of Taiwan and the United States “including at the highest levels…to further strengthen the critical U.S.-Taiwan partnership.”
The advisory team of winning candidate Donald Trump included several persons known to be favorable to Taiwan, including former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Randy Schriver; Alexander Gray, who had previously served as defense press secretary for Congressman J. Randy Forbes of Virginia; and Stephen Yates, a former deputy national security adviser to then-Vice-President Dick Cheney and the current chair of the Idaho Republican Party. Yates, who first went to Taiwan as a Mormon missionary, is fluent in Mandarin, and during his time on the island witnessed first-hand its transition to democracy. Another former Mormon missionary and mandarin speaker, Matt Salmon, who served on the House Rules Committee and its Appropriations Committee while representing Arizona in Congress, is believed to be the next head of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), America’s embassy-equivalent in Taipei. Schriver is expected to be named Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs; Gray has been appointed Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director for the Defense Industrial Base. Yates, who is reportedly considering a run for Idaho’s senate seat, has declined to be considered for a position in the administration.
The most newsworthy indications that Trump meant to change policy toward Taiwan have, however, come from the president-elect himself. Receiving a congratulatory call from the country’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, in early December, Trump addressed Dr. Tsai as President of Taiwan rather than, as Beijing refers to her, “the leader of the Taiwan authorities.” China’s foreign ministry issued a strong protest, warning that this could harm U.S. ties with the PRC, to which another Trump adviser, the American Enterprise Institute’s John Bolton replied that China cannot tell us whom we can talk with, and that Sino-American relations could stand “a good shaking up.” Taiwan media responded by ridiculing the foreign ministry’s protest. A widely circulated and much viewed video showed Xi Jinping as a diaper-wearing panda sitting in his stroller bawling with rage. Surprisingly, the telephone call attracted far more media attention than the announcement a week before that the Dalai Lama expected to meet with Trump. Heretofore, such visits by the Tibetan leader have been a lightning rod for Chinese criticism.
Equally incendiary, and with far greater potential for danger, were Trump’s remarks during a Fox News interview ten days later. Defending the telephone call with Tsai, he asserted that he did not know why the United States should “be bound by a one China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” While happy about the notion that the one China policy, which has been frequently criticized as a negation of reality and an insult to a fellow democracy, Taiwanese and their supporters worried about the implication that Trump meant to use the nation as a bargaining chip to get a better trade deal with the PRC. Mainstream media reaction in the United States was that an iconic agreement that formed the bedrock of Sino-American relations might be destroyed, and the entire relationship with it. Reinforcing their comments, PRC media intimated that the country’s ambassador might be withdrawn, foreshadowing the possible end of diplomatic relations. Any thoughts that the president-elect might walk back from his statement were laid to rest a month later when, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump reiterated that he was not committed to the agreement that Taiwan was not to be recognized diplomatically.
Left to ponder what the new administration might mean for its future, Taiwan’s leaders carried on as usual. President Tsai, in office only since May 2016 herself, is known to be cautious and deliberative, often to the frustration of senior Taiwan officials who would prefer that she make decisions more quickly. In the interim between Trump’s two pronouncements, she refrained from comment. There were rumors, neither confirmed nor denied by the president-elect’s transition team, that she might meet or have a telephone conversation with Trump while transiting through Houston en route to visiting four of her country’s diplomatic allies in Central America. There is no evidence that she did speak with Trump, although Tsai did meet with Texas’s powerful Senator Ted Cruz, Trump staffer Schriver, and several other officials. Cruz mentioned that they had received a “curious” letter from the Chinese consulate in Houston requesting that they not do so.
The problem for Taiwan is that it is far easier for China, bent on taking over the country by force if need be, to punish Taiwan than it is to punish the U.S. In December, the tiny African nation of Sao Tomé and Principe derecognized Taiwan in favor of China after Tsai’s administration refused to provide the $200 million loan its government had requested. In the following month, the Nigerian government, under pressure from Beijing, ordered Taiwan to move its representative office from the capital city, Abuja, to Lagos, curtailed its diplomatic privileges, and ordered Nigerian officials to avoid formal contacts with personnel of the Taiwan office. China is a major customer for Nigerian oil. Nigeria did not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, indicating that Beijing might now seek to cut off Taiwan’s unofficial international ties as well as reduce the number of countries with which it has formal diplomatic relations. At the same time, China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, transited the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing is also capable of exercising pressure in more indirect ways. When Taiwan’s New Power Party, the country’s third-largest, invited members of Hong Kong’s dissident Umbrella Movement to visit, they were met on arrival by masked members of the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), a small but vocal Taiwan group that favors joining their country to the PRC. According to the Taipei Times which, like more than eighty percent of Taiwan’s residents, opposes unification, the CUPP has ties to both the Bamboo Union and Four Seas crime syndicates. The protestors waved signs showing a fist smashing into a “Hong Kong-Taiwanese Independence Alliance.” Beijing, concerned with protecting what it euphemistically calls social stability, is at pains to prevent liaisons between groups that could threaten the control of the Chinese Communist Party.
Other coercive methods open to Beijing include trade pressures. Strenuous efforts by the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou to increase trade ties between Taiwan and China left the island’s economy dangerously dependent on the PRC. As other countries, including the Philippines, Japan, and Argentina have found, Beijing has no hesitations about using its economic leverage to persuade other countries to conform to its wishes. Already dissatisfied when Tsai, not its preferred candidate, won the Taiwan’s presidential election, Beijing reduced the number of tourists allowed to visit Taiwan. Tsai’s government has sought to expand relations with other neighbors, the so-called “go South policy,” with modest but promising results so far—for example, according to the latest statistics from Taiwan’s tourist authority, although tourists from China declined by more than 43 percent in November 2016 over the previous year, arrivals from other countries increased by over 20 percent, for an overall decline of 5.1 percent.
Taiwan has also sought membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a way around the tightening grip of the PRC. China is not a member of the TPP and, given the reforms it would have to make, such as reforming its financial sector, agreeing to more stringent protection of international property rights, and strengthening the role of services in the Chinese economy, would be reluctant to join, notwithstanding a Peterson Institute study estimating that the benefits to it could mean as much as $46 billion initially and could reach $800 billion by 2025. Despite resistance from the country’s agricultural sector, which comprises just two percent of total GDP, the Taiwan government is eager to join. Although small in size, Taiwan is the world’s 27th largest trading partner, and has a trade volume with the current twelve members of the TPP of about $200 billion annually. It is also a vital part of supply chains across the hemisphere. Membership would create new market access for the country’s goods and services. Hence the Taiwan government was taken aback when Trump announced his desire to withdraw from the TPP, which would fall apart were the U.S. not to participate. The PRC has its own economic plan, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, to which Taiwan could not hope to join under any conditions that its electorate could accept.
In sum, Beijing’s moves, clearly intended to intimidate, leave Taiwanese wondering how much further it plans to go to constrain the country’s precarious international living space, and how much it can count on the Trump administration to back it. If Trump truly means to confront China and help Taiwan, it will have to provide the island with reassurances which have thusfar not been forthcoming.
 The six assurances are: not to set a date for the termination of arms sales to Taiwan; not to alter the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act; not to consult with China in advance before making decisions about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan; not to mediate between Taiwan and China; not to mediate between Taiwan and China; not to alter its position about the sovereignty of Taiwan (i.e., that the question was one to be decided peacefully by the parties themselves); not to formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan.