A handful of recent news items from the United States may have direct or incidental impacts on Taiwan:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw all U.S. military troops from Syria within 30 days. The decision is at odds with Trump’s top military advisors, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who announced he would resign in February.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has indicted two alleged Chinese hackers for infiltrating governments and companies in at least 12 countries. The hackers stand accused of being part of the state-affiliated Advanced Persistent Threat 10 (APT10) group, according to the DOJ.
  • Six U.S. senators have authored a letter to top U.S. intelligence bureaus and officials urging them to investigate alleged Chinese election meddling in Taiwan’s recent regional elections.

These moves will affect Syrian Kurds, left vulnerable in the Middle East, and already strained U.S.-China ties. They may also influence the suddenly murky future of Trump’s broader foreign policy.


Credit: Reuters / Yuri Gripas

Outgoing US Defense Secretary James Mattis (L) welcomes Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe to the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia on Nov. 9, 2018.

Mattis departs: A disagreement over 'treating allies with respect'

Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria came after he dubiously claimed on Twitter the U.S. has “won” against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While ISIS has been weakened, Syria remains unstable and the risk of further destabilization is high, International Rescue Committee president David Miliband told the New York Times.

The decision rattled Trump’s own inner circle, including Mattis, who Vox called “the last ‘adult’ in the Trump administration” – a stabilizing force in an ocean of chaos. In his letter of resignation, Mattis said he and Trump disagreed on “treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.”

The allies he refers to are the Kurdish people of Syria and Iraq, who have long assisted U.S. forces in combating extremist elements in the region and are widely considered within the U.S. national security community as the country’s most reliable allies in Syria and Iraq.

How will this affect Taiwan?

Taiwan will lose a staunch supporter in Mattis, who explicitly stated the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, angering China. It was the first time the U.S. had directly mentioned Taiwan at the forum since 2002.

Mattis, as noted by Vox, was also considered one of the few “moderating influences” on Trump’s national security team alongside the now-departed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) rely heavily on U.S. support, and presidential office spokesperson Alex Huang (黃重諺) said yesterday the U.S. remains Taiwan’s most important friend in the international community. But politicians affiliated with the Kuomintang (KMT), such as former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), have questioned the motives of the U.S. in allying with Taiwan as it confronts Beijing.

While the KMT stance may be unsurprising, Taipei mayor and potential 2020 presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) told Bloomberg in October that he feared Taiwan was “just a product on the shelf” for the U.S. in its trade war with China.


Gage Skidmore / Flickr

With the departure of James Mattis, are there any 'adults' left in Trump's national security circle?

The departure of Mattis signals an even more unpredictable U.S. global policy than that of the last two years. Officials like Mattis and McMaster were considered part of a rules-based order in which the U.S. upheld democratic principles and unconditionally supported its allies.

As president, Trump has shown himself to be far more transactional than his predecessors on the geopolitical stage. After the arrest in Canada of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, Trump said he would consider using Meng as a bargaining chip in a potential deal with China, instantly undermining any moral high ground the U.S. could claim by upholding its commitment to judicial independence.

Taiwan retains widespread bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, but Trump has not shied away from ignoring the wishes of Congress to make deals with China.

Concern over abandoning Kurds in Syria

The News Lens recently covered two autonomous Kurdish communities in what appear on the map as Iraq and Syria: Iraqi Kurdistan and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, or Rojava.

Neither region is a perfect comparison to Taiwan, but both retain internal commitments to democracy and secularism despite being surrounded by authoritarian regimes and hostile extremists. Like Taiwan, both rely heavily on the support of the U.S.

Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from Syria will please Russia and Turkey, both of whom have negotiated with the U.S. over matters such as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul.

For civilians in Rojava, it will cause chaos. Turkish forces have been waiting for a U.S. retreat to launch attacks on Rojava’s defense forces, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Credit: Kurdishstruggle / CC BY 2.0

The departure of James Mattis came down to a disagreement over supporting Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Read More: INTERVIEW: The Distant Self-Governing 'Utopia' of Rojava Has a Message for Taiwan

The Trump administration remains supportive of Taiwan and hostile towards Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping remains committed to pulling Taiwan into his orbit and the country was this week named a “flashpoint” for potential conflict in 2019 by the Council on Foreign Relations. However, Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to cut a trade deal with China.

“Getting support from the U.S. is tricky,” a representative of Rojava Plan in the autonomous region told The News Lens in November. “Sometimes you need it, but you should also get support from U.S. rivals so they start to fight over you.”

In a White House now absent moderating influences, Taiwan may hope that, unlike the Kurdish people of northern Syria, it remains merely “on the shelf” as opposed to winding up on the bargaining table.

Chinese hackers and Taiwan election interference

The U.S. on Thursday charged two alleged Chinese hackers, accusing them of being part of APT10, a group linked to China’s main intelligence service.

Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong worked in concert with China’s Ministry of State Security, according to the U.S. court filing. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said the pair had hacked into the governments of at least 12 countries, commercial and defense companies in at least 12 U.S. states, and U.S. Navy computer systems.

The two men have not been arrested.


Credit: FBI

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at a press conference that the move was coordinated with U.S. allies to counter “China’s economic aggression,” adding: “We want China to cease its illegal cyber activities.”

The move came shortly after four Republican and two Democratic senators penned a letter to the heads of the U.S. State Department, U.S. Treasury and FBI, as well as the Cabinet-level Director of National Intelligence, urging them to investigate potential Chinese meddling in Taiwan’s November elections.

“We encourage you to work closely with Taiwan authorities to thoroughly investigate these allegations and, if necessary, take swift action to deter future Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interference in elections in Taiwan or elsewhere across the globe,” reads the letter, which is signed by senators Marco Rubio, Cory Gardner, Ted Cruz, Catherine Cortez Masto, Christopher Coons and Michael Bennet.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) Chairman Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) thanked the senators for the letter, and MoFA has tweeted its appreciation to individual legislators throughout the week.

The letter came just after the U.S. Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which includes clauses backing regular arms sales to Taiwan and encouraging visits by high-level officials between the two countries.

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which has governed U.S.-Taiwan relations since the U.S. switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, enjoys widespread support from both parties of Congress, including incoming Democratic committee chairs.

Trump’s executive-level foreign policy actions, however, will surely be watched closely by Taiwanese citizens – and Taiwan’s level of reliance on an increasingly unstable U.S. administration is sure to become a flashpoint of contention in the country’s upcoming 2020 presidential race.

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