OPINION: US Diplomatic Recalls Should Not Inspire Taiwanese Confidence

OPINION: US Diplomatic Recalls Should Not Inspire Taiwanese Confidence
Photo credit: Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

The US recalled diplomats from countries that dropped recognition of Taiwan, but it’s anyone’s guess who is calling the shots in Washington.

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By Brian Hioe

Do recent American actions indicate stronger support of Taiwan? Namely, American actions as of late have been unusual, with America taking the high-level step of recalling diplomatic representatives to three countries which recently broke ties with the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) in favor of acknowledging the People's Republic of China (PRC, China): the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama.

When Taiwan lost other diplomatic allies under the Tsai administration over the past two years, America did not issue condemnations on this level. Previously, China refrained from poaching Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies in the eight years of the Ma administration as a gesture of goodwill towards the pro-China Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, but its behavior has resumed under the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Five allies have severed ties under the Tsai administration to date.

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Credit: Tsai Ing-wen / Facebook
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

At least on the surface, recalling representatives would appear to be a rather strong gesture by America. This is a known move of America’s diplomatic repertoire and it seems to be quite an emphatic one. But despite that America will sometimes quietly reinstates its diplomatic representatives several months later, it still proves surprising that America would go so far as to recall diplomatic representatives over Taiwan losing allies.

However, it proves necessary for Taiwan to look a gift horse in the mouth here. Many in Taiwan are sufficiently unaware of internal cleavages within the Trump administration and will simply conclude that the Trump administration is and has always been pro-Taiwan, going back to the Trump-Tsai phone call. This is hardly the case.

As a recent Washington Post op-ed by Josh Rogin rightly points out, actions beneficial to Taiwan under the Trump administration have primarily been incremental. It is simply that many in Taiwan grab onto whatever crumbs they can from America and magnify the significance of even minor American action towards Taiwan, generally seeing American actions towards Taiwan only from a Taiwan-centric perspective and failing to consider that Taiwan may only be of minor concern for America in light of larger, global concerns.

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Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
US President Donald Trump.

For one, who is behind such actions? As also noted in the op-ed, actions to benefit Taiwan probably have taken place at a low enough level to avoid catching the attention of President Donald Trump for fear of sudden and unpredictable reaction by Trump.

Indeed, one notes that there has been relatively sparse discussion in Taiwan of the recent op-ed published in the New York Times from a high-level Trump administration official whose name was redacted. This op-ed confirms what observers of the Trump administration from afar have long suspected, that elements in the Trump administration were attempting to counteract Trump.

There has also been little discussion of reports that senior Trump administration officials such as former director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn have taken papers off of Trump’s desk to prevent Trump from undertaking consequential moves such as unilaterally withdrawing America from international free trade agreements such as NAFTA – a matter then dropped by Trump.

Many in Taiwan grab onto whatever crumbs they can from America and magnify the significance of even minor American action towards Taiwan.

If Rogin is correct, it seems more likely that these elements within the Trump administration which are pushing for American actions beneficial to Taiwan are taking advantage of Trump’s inattention to Taiwan in past months, along with heightened tensions between America and China due to the ongoing trade war, than for this to be any deliberate policy by Trump.

However, in general, this situation points to the lack of any coherent policy under the Trump administration. One should have little faith in these rogue elements of the Trump administration to prove a stabilizing force within the White House. Now that Trump is aware of these forces within his administration, he will likely seek to oust them. And actions by such members of the Trump administration in favor of Taiwan could easily be overruled by the president.

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Credit: Maxpixel
Taiwan: a pawn in the US-China geopolitical chess match?

On the other hand, if actions by the Trump administration are, in fact, deliberate in nature, then Taiwan also needs to be wary. Namely, if Trump is suddenly strongly raising the issue of Taiwan, this probably simply because America is once again hoping to use Taiwan as a chess piece in its geopolitical conflict with China.

Stronger actions in favor of Taiwan which fundamentally cost America little, such as temporarily withdrawing diplomatic representatives, would be primarily a means of adding pressure to China. If so, it is only coincidence that Taiwan happens to benefit from this.

Unpredictable times remain ahead for Taiwan, then. Yet one generally observes little commentary of recent actions by America, with public discussion primarily focused more on domestic issues.

Read Next: As Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies Dwindle, Students Are Caught in a Geopolitical Tug of War

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

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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