Donald Trump Could Betray Taiwan

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Donald Trump Could Betray Taiwan

Taiwan’s unfortunate fate is that it will always be vulnerable to a sellout by the United States. This danger may be increasing. In that sense, Republican Party politicians who style themselves as China hawks and Taiwan supporters are backing the wrong presidential candidate in Donald Trump.

Presumptive Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump’s latest statement about Taiwan is another indication that U.S. foreign policy could substantially change course if Trump, who famously sees foreign relations as economic transactions, wins a second term as the chief executive.

In an interview with Fox News on January 21, Trump declined to say whether or not he would order U.S. forces to intervene if China attacked Taiwan. With the interviewer having raised the topic of Taiwan, the next thing out of Trump’s mouth was an economic grievance: “Taiwan did take all of our chip business,” he said. “They took our business away. We should have stopped them.”

Trump’s thinking calls into question the argument made by observers such as Harvard University international relations professor Stephen M. Walt that “U.S. policy toward China isn’t going to change very much no matter what the outcome is next November.” Walt notes that some official policy documents released during the Trump administration named China a challenger to American pre-eminence. The Biden administration similarly treats the U.S.-China relationship as defined by increasingly sharp competition.

Trump’s approaches to China and Taiwan, however, are atypical in the policy-making community and would bend U.S. policy toward an orientation substantially different from the approach that either of Trump’s main rivals, President Joe Biden or alternative Republican contender Nikki Haley, would likely pursue.

In addition to being transactional, Trump is uninterested in promoting or defending a liberal international order. He has always been unduly fixated on the trade deficit with China, saying less about either the geostrategic competition between China and America or the negative effect of Chinese global influence on international rules and norms. 

Trump seems to think that addressing, if not actually fixing, the trade deficit makes the relationship right. At the signing ceremony for the “Phase One” deal in January 2020, Trump said he and his “very, very good friend” Xi Jinping were “righting the wrongs of the past and delivering a future of economic justice and security for American workers, farmers, and families.” Never mind that the preceding so-called “trade war” with China hurt Americans without significantly improving the systemic inequalities in the bilateral relationship and that China did not meet its commitments as part of the Phase One deal to buy more American-made goods.

Trump disdains America’s alliances, seeing allies as free riders and Washington as a sucker, paying the defense costs of states that are rich enough to defend themselves. He reportedly wanted Japan and Korea to increase their host nation support for U.S. bases fourfold and fivefold, respectively. He may have intended these demands as provocations that would lead to the abrogation of the alliances. If that is his agenda, we can expect it to resume in a second Trump term. Trump’s approach suggested he measures the value of alliances only in terms of financial profit and loss, not considering the indirect economic and security benefits of enhanced U.S. leadership in the region that stem from healthy alliance relationships.

Trump does not aspire to liberalize international politics, in contrast to recent U.S. presidents from both major parties who have extolled the advantages of promoting democratization abroad. On the contrary, Trump clearly admires authoritarian leaders, particularly Xi. Trump has frequently expressed admiration both for Xi personally and for his authoritarian governance methods, including during the COVID-19 Pandemic. During his campaign for another term as president, Trump has said Xi is “top of the line” and “brilliant,” adding proudly that “we had a great relationship.”

Therefore, It is unsurprising that Taiwan’s strategic and ideological value to the United States is not top of mind for Trump. Taiwan is the largest and most important piece of the “first island chain” that potentially hinders China’s ability to project power eastward into the Pacific Ocean. Japan, a close U.S. ally, considers the possibility of a PRC takeover of Taiwan as a dire security threat. Many U.S. security partners in the Asia-Pacific region would lose confidence in U.S. leadership if it failed to help defend Taiwan. As a consequence, some would likely decide to accommodate Beijing. 

Taiwan is also an example of successful democratization under U.S. encouragement and a beacon of inspiration for Asian societies currently under authoritarian rule. 

Nevertheless, the possibility of Washington sacrificing Taiwan in a deal with China that would benefit the United States financially would rise significantly under another Trump administration. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, described his boss more than once belittling Taiwan as relatively unimportant. Bolton said Trump compared the difference between China and Taiwan to the size differential between the large desk in the Oval Office and the point of a Sharpie pen.

At the same time, Trump has been known to brush aside U.S. national security concerns to reach an agreement with China. In April 2018, the U.S. government announced a ban on American companies selling components to Chinese telecom corporation ZTE, which had exported U.S. technology to North Korea and Iran in violation of trade sanctions. The ban nearly destroyed ZTE, but Trump reversed it in May 2018. Trump tweeted that he was working with Xi to get ZTE “back into business” because “Too many jobs in China [have been] lost.”

It's true that some of Trump’s advisors got the White House to characterize China as a systemic global rival during his first term. In a second term, however, Trump would be more experienced in the powers and functions of the presidency. He would also remember his disappointment with foreign policy professionals such as Bolton and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Therefore, Trump 2.0 would likely rely more heavily on his own inclinations and de-emphasize professional expertise in the selection of his appointees.

Taiwan’s unfortunate fate is that it will always be vulnerable to a sellout by the United States. This danger may be increasing. In that sense, Republican Party politicians who style themselves as China hawks and Taiwan supporters are backing the wrong presidential candidate.

About the Author: Denny Roy 

Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, specializing in Asia-Pacific strategic and security issues. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He is the author of Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security (Columbia University Press, 2013), The Pacific War and its Political Legacies (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009), Taiwan: A Political History (Cornell University Press, 2003), and China’s Foreign Relations (Macmillan and Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), co-author of The Politics of Human Rights in Asia (Pluto Press, 2000), and editor of The New Security Agenda in the Asia-Pacific Region (Macmillan, 1997). He has also written many articles for scholarly journals such as International Security, Survival, Asian Survey, Security Dialogue, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Armed Forces & Society, and Issues & Studies.

Image: Creative Commons.