By Brian Hioe

The American government sailing two destroyers through the Taiwan Straits earlier this month has been interpreted by some in Taiwan as a continued sign of stronger American support for Taiwan under President Donald Trump. However, some skepticism is in order.

First and foremost, one would do well to remember that being anti-China does not necessarily mean being pro-Taiwan. It is probable that American destroyers were ordered into the Taiwan Strait due to the fact that America’s trade war with China has begun in earnest, with the two sides on the brink of imposing punitive tariffs on bilateral trade flows worth US$100 billion.

In this, China followed America’s lead, seeing as the U.S. has in past months suddenly embarked on a trade war with friend and foe alike, targeting not only China, but also long-standing European allies and Canada. China has claimed that it will take necessary and justified measures to retaliate against trade threats by America, while also positioning itself as a possible new guarantor of the international economic order that America long defended, but now has broken away from.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Shelby Wilkes fires a .50-cailber machine gun during a weapon’s qualification course aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin, forward-deployed to the US 7th Fleet in the Indo-Pacific region, in South China Sea, July 5, 2018.

The trade war may escalate, with Trump threatening new measures against China. While some have warned that Taiwan could be affected by a U.S.-China trade war given strong trading ties with both, others suggest that because of the sectors targeted by tariffs, Taiwan will face minimal affect. Regardless of whether Taiwan is affected by the trade war, as with Japan, another American ally in the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan does stand to be affected by American tariffs on steel and aluminum imposed by the Trump administration. Like Japan, in the past, Taiwan has unsuccessfully lobbied for an exemption from these tariffs.

Indeed, it is probably because of its current trade war with China and not because of the geopolitical threats that America sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait. The last time the American government sailed warships through the Taiwan Straits was in July 2017. This was several months after the Trump-Xi summit in April 2017, immediately before which there had been a great deal of tension between America and China, and immediately after which there was a brief easing of tensions when Trump emerged from the meeting apparently enamored with China's president. Tensions between America and China worsened again after China was unable to reign in North Korea, as Trump had called on Xi to do during the meeting.

Between July 2017 and the present, however, China has escalated its military threats against Taiwan significantly. China sailed its sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, through the Taiwan Strait in January and March. By contrast, America has not sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait since 2007. China also held large-scale exercises simulating an invasion of Taiwan in April and has conducted flybys of the islands with Chinese fighter airplanes.


Photo Credit: Reuters/ TPG

China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducts a drill in an area of South China Sea, in this undated photo taken December 2016.

Notably, despite such threats by China, there was no response from America in defense of Taiwan -- such as sailing destroyers through the Taiwan Straits -- until after the start of the trade war. There were those in Taiwan who, rather predictably, saw China being excluded from the RIMPAC military exercises by America for the first time as a sign of stronger support for Taiwan. Again, to be anti-China is far from being pro-Taiwan. While it is possible that China was hoping to pressure the U.S. indirectly by threatening Taiwan, America did not respond to the saber-rattling.

Although there are those who interpret other American actions vis-a-vis Taiwan, such as the opening of a new American Institute in Taiwan, the U.S. def facto embassy in the country, and the possibility floated that American marines will be stationed there, this confuses actions of several different magnitude . To begin with, the opening of the new AIT facility was long planned, even before Donald Trump took the presidency, and it only by chance happened to coincide with this current period of heightened tensions between America and China. Given the numerous flip-flops of the Trump administration between periods of high tension and rapprochement with Beijing, had the opening come a few months sooner or later, it may have taken place during a period of easing tensions with Beijing in such a manner that would have led American government officials to downplay tensions.

And the possibility of stationing a small detachment American marines at AIT means very little,seeing as American marines serve as security at American embassies across the world and, if AIT did not previously have a marine detachment, it certainly did have a security detachment. Marines would not be stationed at AIT in such significant numbers as to deter Chinese invasion -- a “Marine House” hardly being anything in size or scale like an American army base in Taiwan -- and American military personnel are already present in Taiwan, even if more often in an unofficial capacity.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

US marines take part in the dedication ceremony of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.

Some would also point to legal actions by America in support of Taiwan, such as the recent passing of the Taiwan Travel Act, to suggest increased support for Taipei. However, many in Taiwan are insufficiently aware of reports that Trump was unhappy with Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, visiting Taiwan in order to follow through on the provisions of the act shortly after it passed -- this because it might have disrupted negotiations with China at the time. Trump very probably remains aware that the “Taiwan card” is one he can play against China, hence actions such as sailing American destroyers through the Taiwan Strait, but he may also view Taiwan as an unnecessary source of disruption -- he would certainly not be nthe only American president to do so.

In the meantime, some questions actually remain to be answered about why America would send warships through the Taiwan Strait at this juncture. Some, for example, see the hand of the hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton behind the move. But while obviously aimed at intimidating Beijing and in line with other actions pushed for by Bolton, his influence would seem to be on the wane in the Trump administration after the president's meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in mid-June, something that Bolton did not wish to take place and deliberately attempted to sabotage. The current constellation of forces within the Trump administration remains opaque.

Yet in general, wherever answers lie, one can generally expect Taiwan to remain only a chess piece or card to be played as part of the broader geopolitical game for America.

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The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.

TNL Editor: David Green