'America First' Versus 'One China'

Tsai Ing-wen visits a military facility. Flickr/Creative Commons/Republic of China Presidential Office

Trump could be laying the groundwork for a stronger U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Donald J. Trump is now the forty-fifth president of the United States. As president of the world’s strongest democracy, Trump is bound by the Take Care Clause of the U.S. Constitution to execute the laws of the land—laws such as the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Under the principle of separation of powers enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the executive branch—now headed by President Trump—is responsible for implementing the laws of the land by formulating policies.

As president-elect, Trump indicated that his administration’s approach to foreign policy would not be bound by the outdated conventions and self-imposed restrictions toed needlessly by previous administrations. He suggested that those policies would be recalibrated to better suit American interests in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the president-elect took a congratulatory phone call from the democratically elected leader of Taiwan—a key security partner of the United States—and questioned the efficacy of the former administration’s China policy.

Despite the public outcry, nothing Trump said or did as president-elect changed U.S. policy or the law. Also, Trump was completely within his legal rights to take a phone call and “question” the former administration’s policies. (Former president Obama said as much when he stated, “I think all of our foreign policy should be subject to fresh eyes.”) Additionally, even if President Trump does change U.S. policy, there is nothing to legally stop him from doing so.

While much fuss has been made about the policies in question, there has been limited discussion about the dangerous logic that feeds the fear over the president’s questioning of policy. Lost in the polemic discourse following the president’s comments is a recognition of the legal underpinnings of U.S. policies toward Taiwan, which remain ever constant, and the elasticity of the U.S. “One China” policy itself.

The reaction, even among experts, was telling and laid bare a critical blind spot in the United States’ approach to cross-Strait relations. To be sure, U.S. policy towards Taiwan has operated over the past forty-five years on the premise that America’s primary interest is in the process—as opposed to the outcome—of resolving differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

It was inherently a passive policy by design, but the emphasis on process intentionally ceded the initiative of shaping the outcome to the two other parties: Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. It was an approach that some senior policymakers at the time expected would create a fait accompli, yet it provided Washington, DC with the flexibility to adapt and respond to broader geopolitical challenges while maintaining stability in the Taiwan Straits.

Despite expectations to the contrary, Taiwan thrived in the ensuing four decades. The government liberalized from the top down while an active civil society fervently pushed for political reforms from the bottom up. Taiwan evolved from an authoritarian government to a vibrant democracy. Support for Taiwan and its democracy grew within the United States as well.

As the power disparity between the two sides widens, however, the policy focused on the process is increasingly under strain and has left Taiwan more susceptible to coercion and Beijing more emboldened to use military force. Indeed, the PRC is gradually and unceasingly pushing toward its own desired outcome for Taiwan. All the while, America’s focus on process is drawing it towards China’s objectives at the expense of its values and strategic interests.

Some American scholars and former policymakers have sounded the alarm about the need to accommodate China by reaching a new modus vivendi with Beijing, which will effectively abandon Taiwan. A debate over a Hobson’s choice, however, obscures a much-needed discussion about a Taiwan strategy that not only focuses on ensuring a peaceful process but also a vision for a desired outcome.

As the two sides of the Taiwan Strait struggle to engage in dialogue, the scope of this process-based approach to policymaking has barred U.S. policymakers from actively shaping conditions in the Taiwan Strait that would be more conducive to long-term peace and stability. This outdated and partly flawed premise of the approach is based on a Washington tendency to construct events in the Taiwan Strait in binary terms: independence or unification. That is a false dilemma, which Beijing has framed as a Hobson’s choice.