ANALYSIS: How Should Taiwan Navigate the Global Stage If It Can't Trust Trump?

ANALYSIS: How Should Taiwan Navigate the Global Stage If It Can't Trust Trump?
Credit: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

What you need to know

A deep dive into how Taiwan can withstand a potential cold shoulder from the unreliable US President.

By Ian Inkster

Most social scientists now regard global dynamics as a complex system, more akin to a human body than to the workings of a machine or a single economy, with more open-ends, fractals and complete unknowns than could ever be wanted by any analyst. Yet it persists in popping up. This is because – particularly in a high-trading economy such as Taiwan – forecasts or other analyses of major political trends in any nation fall victim to the untoward and often anarchic forces of the global system. If this is not through cultural impacts and convergences then it works through the more stalwart forces of trade, investment, labor migrations, information flows, military challenge or threat, and institutional networks.

So, to trust that we can now see forthcoming political events in Taiwan in the absence of the limelight shed by international trends would be whimsical, but to rely on the salience or machine-like logic of the outside world would be properly foolish.

Credit: Reuters / Jim Young
This man cannot be trusted to save Taiwan.

Trump withdrawing

For some time now Donald Trump has been in effective if confusing command over the withdrawal of the U.S. from global affairs at very different levels – abandoning the Syrian intervention, proclaiming the need for NATO to fund itself in Europe rather than rely on massive windfall gains from the American defense system, withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, urging that Japan be freed of the treaty restrictions binding its defense system so that it may take over erstwhile U.S. burdens in the Pacific, withdrawal from the world of migration and refugees by erecting a physical wall between the North and the South of the continent, abandoning the neo-liberal doctrine of free global markets for a protectionist regime that is only partially aimed at curbing Chinese economic power. The warnings for all of this came with the original presidential campaign and they might be taken altogether as the operational features of a new general U.S. philosophy.

Periods of U.S. withdrawal are of course not unknown, but this one seems multifunctional, part of an original White House agenda, and very appealing to the host of American citizens who rightly feel neglected if not disdained by their own more conventional political elite. There now seems to be every likelihood that Trump will secure his second term at least to an extent on the basis of a series of withdrawals – during 2019 this might well embrace a more distant attitude towards Taiwan.


We are fast moving towards post-diplomacy, a world in which relations within the old comity of nations are being replaced by emergencies caused by strategically placed leaders such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-un, to whom we might now add Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Today, a premature stupid action might become a last action before war, in contrast to an old world wherein even stupid actions by thoughtless leaders could be mitigated or even resolved within a quieter world of the diplomats.

Trump’s present forced closure of a crucial part of the U.S. political machine as quid pro quo for the granting of funds for his Mexican wall is a classic instance of global spit-the-dummy post-diplomacy and must vex all of us who worry over the strategic position of U.S. regarding the China-Taiwan issue. Taiwan might quite easily find itself in dummy trajectory at only a moment’s notice. Given a unique combination of international forces this is especially worrying for Taiwan policy makers. The mix of nuclear threats (U.S. and North Korea are merely exemplary) in a new situation of low diplomacy and high-tech, where the capacity to destroy is now more and more divorced from the actual wealth and income of the belligerent nation, means that as a hot-spot speedily emerges, the power of diplomacy is gone.

In contrast, other high-tech anarchically operated through the social media penetrate every delicate negotiating situation, so that any remnants of diplomacy must take place in institutional bunkers, but these latter are working without effective political executive guidance. This is a vivid conjuncture to Taiwan diplomats and decision-makers to consider during 2019.

Credit: Reuters / KCNA
Welcome to a post-diplomatic world.

Chinese economic restructuring

The present Five-Year Plan and its associated elements of industrial and technological restructuring offer a more positive international element to the Taiwanese political economy. Although most global media focus all but entirely upon supposed Chinese economic growth slow-down, more crucial is the changing character of the Chinese economic system. This is true for the world trading system as a whole, but most directly so for Taiwan. Growth in trade and investment relations with China do not depend primarily on the rate of overall growth but on the rate of growth of foreign trade and commerce and the direction of technological change.

During 2017-18 China’s direct foreign investment, designed to gather both influence and technical information and expertise in the U.S., Europe and Africa, enjoyed rapid growth, and the investment in Belt and Road countries saw a growth of 30 percent. Elsewhere I have argued in great detail that the Chinese political system has been creative in the use of novel political rhetoric to justify switches in economic policy that are designed to open up foreign technologies through either trade and investment or through tutelage in terms of multinational enterprise (and the practical tutelage embedded in producer-supplier relations), patenting, educational and training packages, intergovernmental science and technology contracting, and so on. Major swings in political rhetoric designed to demarcate new political ‘eras’ correlate with new policies towards a transfer-in of information and technologies.

The present Chinese planning regime does seem to represent something of a new technology strategy, and this could be of enormous benefit to Taiwan, especially in the employment of graduates skilled in business, foreign languages, mathematics, information technologies, environmental industries and marine and biotechnical innovations. That is, present tendencies in China are likely to increase Taiwan-China techno-complementarity. This should be seen as a regional context for an industrial program based on high tech and high value-added exports.

An East-Asian prosperity zone?

Already we have introduced some elements that might well encourage closer East-Asian economic and political cooperation as a firm focus of Taiwanese politics – the probable U.S. leniency towards a re-armed Japan, increased high-tech complementarity among otherwise contrasting political economies (exemplified here by China and Taiwan but this theme can easily embrace Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong), a possible long-term U.S. regime of withdrawal from intervention. It might even be that the contrasts between the political regimes in this huge and complex region might allow growing economic, strategic and technological complementarities to become even clearer. Whatever the political noise, the main destinations of Taiwan’s exports in order of importance are China, Hong Kong, the U.S., Japan; similarly, Taiwan’s imports come from China, Japan, the U.S., and South Korea (2018). Contrasting political economies coalesce in a flow of basic goods primarily spanning machinery and electrical equipment, metals, plastics and chemicals.

Credit: Reuters / TPG
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (C).

Taiwan’s ‘Southward’ strategy

It would not be too difficult to reinterpret the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s earlier focus on Southward commercial expansion (a rebuff of the Kuomintang (KMT)’s emphasis on closer China-Taiwan commercial relations) as well beyond internal political rhetoric, as indeed a harbinger of Taiwan’s place in a wider framework. A framework that incorporated closer commercial networking between East and South Asia (especially Indonesia, India, Singapore and Malaysia). This was an alternative to a global perspective that has fallen fowl of low growth, protectionism, weakening of democracies and challenge to free markets, anarchic elements in traditional major commercial systems (from France to Russia), and continued low performances of growth and welfare in most of Africa and South America.

The internal politics of Taiwan might well become re-drafted to switch from positing the stark China-South alternatives in commercial and economic policies towards a more embracing Eastern and Southern strategy designed to free much of Asian growth from restrictions established by slow-performing Western democracies, as well as to establish a secure status for Taiwan as a high-tech, highly-skilled, democratic and global site for innovation across institutions, markets and technologies.

Returning policy to the people

Of course, Taiwan can only emerge as proactive in any of this international context from a firm internal base. Many see the recent DPP debacle as primarily a result of its failure to fully define and address the major problems faced by citizens – lowering growth, productivity and employment, leading to higher unemployment, depression in business prospects and innovation, lack of expenditure on major social problems of unemployment, city degeneration, failing infrastructures and a sense of elite political battles being fought at a level that seldom touches real life. On the other hand, I and my colleagues Mark Lai and Victoria Chang have argued in Taiwan Insight that much of the recent election outcome might yet be put at the door of DPP failure in international relations, especially the looming threat of China, so recently re-expressed by Xi, just after the 2018 Taiwan elections.

The conclusion is obvious but as delicate and flimsy as might be expected from my opening remarks, and it involves squaring a circle – to ensure that in 2019 the groundwork is laid for both addressing the fundamental domestic problems whilst satisfying the civil society of Taiwan that everything is being done to secure a safe future enveloped in a clear sense of national and cultural identity. If that was – in a sense – always the case once the KMT political monopoly was broken during the 1980s, then it is more the case right now. A world of Trumpian post-diplomacy, which is seemingly on the threshold of a retreat from democracy, is no place for a Taiwan that continues to dither. Networking towards a more innovative international focus that does not exclude China but rather helps towards delineating a new China, pushing new commercial and technological alliances, using Taiwan’s democracy as a lesson in maintaining the essentials of democracy in emerging economies and polities, might be pursued as a complementary external policy strategy to one of social and economic renewal within Taiwan.

The forecast. Sorry, its either or! Taiwan might not recognize any need to square the circle during 2019. In which case the political system will get bogged down in internal reforms that take little account of the international economic and political environs, or politicians will continue the pro and anti-China rhetoric whilst ignoring unemployment and deteriorating social life. But if Taiwan faces up to the squaring of the circle, with political leadership fully engaging in both external and internal environs, then 2019 could be very stormy indeed! As all innovating businessmen know, true improvements take time and cost money, and in the meantime pension-fund investors withdraw their funds in fear of falling share prices, shuttling the innovator towards commercial doom. In Taiwan, a year of such innovation would hardly allow the completion of any of our desiderata, so a burst of novelty might soon enough be swallowed by a bout of retreat – just in time for the next presidential elections.

Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
Tsai Ing-wen has had a strong start to 2019, but what comes next?

Consociational democracy

Can President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the DPP now do anything at all that might increase the probability of greater political innovation without either scuppering her party or forcing an early and very conflictful presidential election? One possibility is the one that she herself had suggested back in early 2012 and arose in the work of Dutch political scientist, Arend d’Angremond Lijphart, who developed the term ‘consociational democratic system’ from European experience in his book "The Politics of Accommodation." This was primarily concerned with just how it was that segmented societies could manage to sustain democracy through power-sharing beyond that of merely sharing cabinet appointments between two political parties in an effectively dualistic party system. In Taiwan, this is a little complicated with the so-called ‘Han wave’ and the more general rise of minority parties, but it should not yet be out of the question.

The reason it might loom larger as a form of squaring the circle for Taiwan is that present episodes in democracies elsewhere are showing clearly a redundancy of two-party politics especially if they are seen as representing primarily existing powerful administrative and cultural establishments.

So, the rise of Trump in the U.S. and an associated collapse of diplomacy; the terrible situation of Theresa May and the Tories in the present crisis of Brexit and the European status of the UK; the abnormality of what happened last year in France, and so on. If Hilary Clinton had freed herself from an elitist political nesting she might have beaten Trump, but it would have required serious, institutionalized interaction with Republicans, with unions and state-based interest groups, all transparent and without done-deals.

If Theresa May at the very beginning of her election to the Premiership, had actually set up an inter-party committee that included true expertise on trade, foreign investment, migration and European institutions, and was backed throughout by a selected cross-party think-tank of both politicians and public service experts and power-mongers, then perhaps the media and general public flak that arose with her every move or decision would have been diffused across the political system. Perhaps it would have given rise to a much-improved version of the present weak Brexit compromise, one that can only now get through Parliament if it cannot get through Europe itself. This shared-decision model would have seen close to two years of something like ‘consociational democracy’ and British civil society would today appear in much better shape.

The manner in which the China/cross-Strait issue is at once very complex, divisive between and within parties, and insoluble on the basis of partial and party-based decisions, is strikingly similar to the role of Europe and Brexit in UK over the last two or so years. It might be that Tsai should reconsider her original innovative idea to push Taiwan into a more progressive democratic trajectory during and after 2019?

In 2012, I was fully behind the possible salience of this idea for Taiwan. Right now, the confused result of last year’s elections and the international tendencies in democracies more generally, combine to shore up my support for some radical attack on the tired parry and thrust of the two-party system in Taiwan. It is not clear now what a Presidential election today might bring, but it does seem that the KMT is strengthening its hand (KMT comments on China’s recent Taiwan statements confuse the issue further), that civil society’s awareness of the difficult international status of Taiwan runs very high, and that the youthful vote in particular might appreciate a system that was addressing both internal and external political issues on more consensual, ‘consociational’ grounds.

On this thesis, Tsai should begin the New Year with a call to immediate cross-party discussions on major internal policy issues, indicating the eventual possibility of a form of consociational representation and responsibility emerging in properly institutional terms during 2019, as groundwork for maintaining such a system into and beyond the next elections.

Ian Inkster has been an academic economic historian and global political economist since 1973, holding professorships in Australia, UK, and Taiwan, and is a Professorial Research Associate, Center of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, London; a Senior Non-Residential Fellow at the Taiwan Studies Program and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham; and editor of History of Technology (London) since 2001.


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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published in two parts (here and here) by Asia Dialogue, a website published by the University of Nottingham's Asia Research Institute.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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