Donald Trump and Taiwan: The future of US-Taiwan Relations

Leaders speak for the first time in decades

After a historic election, President-elect Donald Trump continued to surprise the world by accepting a congratulatory call from the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, on December 2nd: Trump congratulated her back, as Tsai became the first female president of Taiwan just earlier this year. This is the first time leaders from the two nations have spoken to each other since 1979. In 1978, the US ended diplomatic ties with Taiwan, aka the Republic of China (ROC), in order to being relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The call has angered the PRC, which immediately filed a complaint to the White House, claiming that Trump is not honoring the One China Policy.

Back in the 70’s, the ROC on Taiwan claimed that it was still the sole, legal representative of China after having been driven out of mainland China by the Communist Party in 1949. Fast-forward to modern day, and the ROC gave up its dream to recapture China and instead focused on governing Taiwan; it democratized to incorporate the Taiwanese locals into the government and had its first democratic presidential election in 1996. However, the ROC is still the Republic of China on paper, and the PRC threatens war if the Taiwan “province” decides to declare formal independence and separate from the country of China.

Political blunder or strategic game?

China is very sensitive when any country’s leaders interact with Taiwan’s leaders, because their policy is that Taiwan is a province and does not have a legitimate government. When Trump acknowledged Tsai as Taiwan democratically elected president and spoke directly with her, the PRC claims these actions defy the One China Policy. In China, news media must call Taiwan’s president the “leader” of Taiwan province (lingdao ren 領導人/领导人) and never a president.

Political pundits have speculated on why Trump broke the established practice of alienating Taiwan diplomatically. “Experts” on Trump have wildly varying opinions about this move, which is becoming pretty normal in mainstream media nowadays:

  • Trump is not aware about the political situation between the US and Taiwan, and his second tweet remarking about the “interesting” situation with Taiwan is evidence that he just learned about it after the call. The narrative adds that Trump’s administration is scrambling to cover up this “blunder.”
  • Trump doesn’t care about the consequences of any of this and is trying to expand his hotel business into Taiwan. The Trump administration denies this as a rumor.
  • Trump is fully aware of the political situation and is intent on sending a message to China. If this is true, he may be treating Taiwan as a pawn to push China’s patience, which may incite China to do dangerous things and put both Taiwan and the US at risk.
  • Trump is intent on reforming relations with Taiwan.

 

Trump knows about Taiwan

While many pundits have written off Trump’s call with Tsai as a blunder, there is much evidence to support the claim that Trump is indeed knowledgeable about the US-Taiwan-China relations and had prepared for the call:

  • Trump’s top advisor on Asia is one of the most outspoken critics of the China and Taiwan situations, Peter Navarro. Navarro has apparently been selected as White House National Trade Council, a newly created position. Navarro is an economist who authored the book and documentary “Death by China” and is also an advocate of protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty. He recently wrote a series of articles on Taiwan following Taiwan’s presidential elections. His final article was titled “America Can’t Dump Taiwan.”
  • It has been revealed that former Senator Bob Dole had actually been working on arranging high-level contact between Taiwan and the US for months. The Taiwanese government does not have official channels with the US government, so like a corporation, it employs lawyers and lobbyists to reach out to US officials.
  • This year was the first time that the Six Assurances to Taiwan has been included on the Republican Party Platform, so it can be expected that as the man who took over the Republican party, Trump would understand the reason for the addition.
  • Taiwanese American Elaine Chao has been selected as transportation secretary; Chao was President George Bush, Jr.’s secretary of labor and notably the first Asian American woman to serve as a Cabinet member. Chao also served as a deputy of transportation for President George Bush, Sr. In October, Chao met President Tsai for the purpose of celebrating her father’s new book, which shows how well her family is connected in Taiwan. Trump has been carefully interviewing his potential cabinet members, so he would have learned about her identity and where she came from.

 

Is Taiwan a “pawn sacrifice” or a friend of Trump?

Despite the intentions of “the call,” there have been two clear results: Taiwan’s situation was brought to the global spotlight and China has been agitated and is responding. In mid-December, China held its first live-fire military exercises using an aircraft carrier near Taiwan. It seems that Trump is playing a game of chess with China, and in his eyes, Taiwan might just be a pawn being pushed to force China into making changes in its trade practices with the US.

In the past, politicians and the media have typically tiptoed across a delicate line when reporting on Taiwan in fear of angering China. By changing the song-and-dance, Trump is raising awareness about Taiwan’s situation and the One China Policy that the world adheres to in order to have formal diplomatic relations with China, but he is also putting the US and Taiwan at risk for possible political, economic, and even military backlash. So while Trump may be making plans to counter China’s backlash against the US, is he concerned about the possible hostility towards Taiwan?

The president-elect has consistently promoted an “America First” motto and suggested that Japan and South Korea should pay for the United States to keep its troops stationed in the region. Even though Trump has highlighted that the “U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment,” it is unclear if Trump is willing to extend a helping hand to any of its allies across the globe if it doesn’t translate to immediate financial gains for the US.

At the same time, it’s also entirely possible that weakened ties between the US and China will give the friendly US-Taiwan relationship room to grow. While Taiwan stands out as a beacon of democracy in East Asia, leaders of the US have given Taiwan a cold shoulder in order to maintain friendly ties with China, but Trump is one of the few presidential candidates in recent years who is daring enough to take the relationship further, possibly even restarting formal diplomatic relations with the ROC. With advocates such as Navarro at his side, history could be made.

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