Supporters of Taiwan have experienced both elation and dejection in recent months as President Donald Trump first seemed prepared to embrace the democratic island-nation only to turn around and instead engage in a romance with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
The initial optimism resulted in large part from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which promised a much more rigid line on China and an end to President Obama’s supposedly “weak” way of dealing with the authoritarians in Beijing on issues from currency manipulation to territorial expansion, human rights to cyber espionage. For those who regard geopolitics as a zero-sum game between states, this stance held the promise of creating more space and opportunities for Taiwan.
That enthusiasm was reinforced soon after Trump’s election in November. First was his precedent-setting ten-minute telephone conversation with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, and then came his comments during an interview in which he questioned the utility of the United States continuing to abide by its “one China” policy.
Some observers saw those early developments as signs of a paradigm shift in Washington, DC and a break from the establishment’s way of conducting policy. Others, the Chinese included, attributed this to Trump’s ignorance and inexperience as a politician.
Others expected an eventual course correction once Trump entered the Oval Office. Whatever position Trump may have held during his election campaign and during the transitional period as president-elect was occurring in a vacuum of sorts. Once he became president, institutional countervailing forces—in government, business circles and within the international system—were bound to force the new president to move back towards the center; in other words, his actual policies were bound to look a lot more like those of his predecessors.
And that is exactly what happened. Not only did Trump, now president, reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the “One China” policy after his first telephone conversation with President Xi, he soon distanced himself from his earlier flirting with Taiwan. Asked in early May whether he would take another call from President Tsai (who unwisely agreed to answer a speculative question on the subject during an interview), Trump made it clear that he would not. Many saw his response as a “slap in the face” for the Taiwanese head of state. Compounding fears of a complete reversal was speculation that his administration was delaying an arms package, initiated when Obama was still in office, for Taiwan.
Soon after President Trump’s April summit with his Chinese counterpart at Mar-a-Lago, the belief that Trump could be “good” for Taiwan was supplanted by the view that the transactional president had been completely charmed by President Xi. Rather than apply the brakes on his way back toward the policy middle ground, he’d seemed to have pressed the accelerator toward the other end of the spectrum: capitulation to China. China no longer was a currency manipulator. Requests to continue freedom-of-navigation patrols in the disputed South China Sea were turned down. Fears that Trump had sold out to Beijing were compounded by the promise of lucrative deals with the Chinese benefiting people close to the center of gravity at the White House, including Trump family members.
So it was “China, China, China” all over again, but this time with a positive spin. For U.S. allies in Asia, the emotional roller coaster was once again in full swing, sparking fears of strategic retrenchment and abandonment of longstanding security partners.
At the heart of President Trump’s ostensible policy U-turn lies North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, which has become a top foreign-policy priority for the Trump administration.
The irony, of course, is that rather than indicate a new departure for the United States, Trump’s early love fest with Beijing underscores policy continuity in Washington. Like his predecessors, starting with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, President Trump has convinced himself of Beijing’s indispensability in resolving the North Korea problem. As long as this belief holds in Washington, the Trump administration will avoid any type engagement with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, which is bound to act as an irritant in U.S.-China relations.
That is extraordinary leverage for Beijing, which has been using the North Korea card for nearly three decades. And that is why China will never be the indispensable partner that presidents Trump, Obama, Bush Jr. and Clinton were hoping it would be. Beijing sees little interest in full resolution of the Korean Peninsula Gordian knot. It gains far more by managing the conflict and convincing, as it has done very well, the international community that it needs Beijing’s assistance.
Indeed in the current phase the Taiwan “irritant” gets in the way of the relationship President Trump wants with China in order to deal with Pyongyang, and consequently Taipei and other longstanding U.S. partners in Asia will have to show resilience and patience and not expect anything substantial to come their way for the foreseeable future. When it comes to arms sales, Taiwan has experienced long delays before, both under Bush Jr. and Obama; and in the present case the lack of progress can probably also be attributed to the fact that the people at the Department of Defense and other agencies who handle such matters have yet to be appointed by the Trump administration.
Like those that came before it, the Trump administration will eventually awaken to the fact that Beijing cannot, and has no desire to, deliver on North Korea. When this happens, Beijing will lose much of its luster in the eyes of Trump administration officials, and much of its leverage. Following that, U.S. policy towards the Asia-Pacific region and Taiwan will swing back toward the center and become recognizable once again.
Like his predecessors, President Trump suffers from amnesia and is currently ignoring the lessons of history. The day will come when he realizes that China will never be the partner that he would like for it to be.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior nonresident fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, UK, and a research associate with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China. He is chief editor of Taiwan Sentinel.
Image: A Chinese People's Armed Police guard on Tiananmen Square. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Luo Shaoyang