By Billy Stampfl

With the 2024 Republican primary campaign in full swing and President Joe Biden sporting a dismal approval rating, there is a significant chance that Democrats lose the White House next November. For those interested in China-U.S.-Taiwan relations, two questions should spring to mind: which Republicans stand a chance to represent their party in 2024, and what are their views on Taiwan?

Former president Donald Trump leads the GOP field, but other candidates—Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Chris Christie—are viable to varying degrees. Despite all being Republicans who have articulated antipathy towards China, their foreign policy views often diverge, carrying important implications for Taiwan. 

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MIAMI, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 08: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Donald Trump – former U.S. President

Trump’s grip on the nomination remains strong, but his path forward is precarious. The good news for the former president: he polls at nearly 60% nationally and has secured a bevy of major endorsements. As other Republican hopefuls flounder, he has separated himself from the field and cemented his popularity among a loyal base.

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FORT DODGE, IOWA - NOVEMBER 18: Former President Donald Trump speaks to a crowd of supporters at the Fort Dodge Senior High School on November 18, 2023 in Fort Dodge, Iowa.  (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

Still, Trump is not unstoppable, partly because his 2024 calendar is marred by trials set for March 4, March 25, and May 20. He will dedicate much of his time and money to his criminal defense, and even if publicized court proceedings boost his standing, the former president faces the incredible risk that he will be imprisoned by Election Day.

Additionally, Trump’s dominance in nationwide polling belies slightly smaller advantages in pivotal early states: recent polls show him up by 20 to 25 points in Iowa and New Hampshire. These are significant but not insurmountable leads, especially as other candidates exit and rivals consolidate the non-Trump vote share. New Hampshire likely presents the best opportunity for another candidate to challenge the former president. Unlike Iowa, Trump has lost New Hampshire twice in the general election, and independents can vote in the Republican primary there. Trump remains the likely nominee, but indictments and the possibility of a surprise in one of the early states make him less unbeatable than national polling might indicate.

Trump’s White House tenure provides ample evidence for assessing how he might approach Taiwan-related issues if reelected. His administration pursued pro-Taiwan policies: it signed a travel bill encouraging American diplomats to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts; sent cabinet-level officials to Taiwan on business visits; and opened a $255 million representative office in Taipei. Trump also increased arms sales to Taiwan, including $8 billion worth of F-16 fighter jets in 2019 and a $1.8 billion transaction a year later. Whether Trump’s norm-defying December 2016 phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen was calculated or the mark of a geo-political neophyte, his foreign policy was unambiguously hostile towards China and favorable for Taiwan.

But is the former president as dedicated to Taiwan’s defense as some of his actions suggest? He reportedly remarked that the U.S. could do nothing to prevent a China’s invasion to Taiwan. He once called Xi Jinping a “friend.” He has refused to support Ukraine with further aids and said that he could end Putin’s warfare by urging Zelensky to “make a deal.” Trump’s volatility means observers must cautiously assess his foreign policy comments and cabinet appointments if he recaptures the White House.

Nikki Haley – former U.N. Ambassador

Haley presents a unique cocktail, mixing executive experience, an historic candidacy, Trump Administration bona fides, and foreign policy expertise. In the debates and on the campaign trail, she has demonstrated a profound grasp of gender politics—notable, since women make up almost half of the Republican primary electorate. Mirroring her increased media attention, Haley has started attracting more interest among voters: she notched 20% in a recent New Hampshire poll and sits at 16%, tied with Ron DeSantis, in Iowa. And Haley can look forward to her home state of South Carolina, where she polls in second-place and will benefit from Senator Tim Scott’s abrupt withdrawal from the race.

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DES MOINES, IOWA - NOVEMBER 17: Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley attends the Thanksgiving Family Forum at the downtown Marriott on November 17, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

Given recent polling and her home-field advantage in the third primary state, Haley’s path to the nomination is now more viable than any non-Trump candidate, especially if she can secure a strong second-place showing in Iowa or New Hampshire. Assuming again that the Granite State will be this primary’s pivotal contest, the Haley-New Hampshire combination presents an opportunity to unseat Trump. She has held 60 events there and quadrupled her support among New Hampshirites since July. She continues to court popular home-state Governor Chris Sununu, who has criticized both Trump and DeSantis in the past and seems most likely to endorse Haley. And she stands to gain the most if DeSantis shifts more resources to Iowa or Christie, who boasts double-digit polling in New Hampshire, withdraws from the race.

Haley, with the most meaningful foreign policy experience of any candidate, has been one of this primary’s loudest China hawks. She criticized China over Uyghur internment as U.N. ambassador and has only stepped up attacks on Beijing since leaving the Trump Administration in 2018. She said in 2021 that Taiwan is a sovereign country and that the U.S. must take stronger action against China. She has affirmed that stance early in the 2024 campaign, but perhaps the clearest sign of a President Haley’s Taiwan policy comes from a 2020 essay in which she endorsed more high-tech military sales to Taipei, federal legislation authorizing a forceful American response to a Chinese invasion, and a U.S.-Taiwan free trade deal. She has used substantive diplomatic experience to articulate specific measures to protect Taiwan and enhance relations between Washington and Taipei, venturing beyond the often empty anti-China messaging that has become standard among her Republican rivals.

Ron DeSantis – Governor of Florida

Once a co-frontrunner, later a second-to-Trump contender, DeSantis’ star has faded amid setbacks this year, starting with a messy Twitter Spaces campaign launch in May and extending to dreary debate performances and awkward campaign moments more recently. A non-factor in New Hampshire, DeSantis is all-in on Iowa, where he remains in second place. Still, he has failed to consolidate support among Iowans, instead ceding ground to an ascendent Haley. A recent endorsement from popular Hawkeye State Governor Kim Reynolds might help, but the Florida politician’s single-contest focus risks a one-and-done finish that would mirror his campaign’s altogether disappointing performance thus far.

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DES MOINES, IOWA - NOVEMBER 17: Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Thanksgiving Family Forum at the downtown Marriott on November 17, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

Is there any hope for the Florida Governor? DeSantis made a choice early on to style himself as Trump Lite: a culture warrior smart and savvy enough to advance the conservative agenda nationwide. But polling suggests Trump-skeptic voters want something different—something closer to Nikki Haley’s above-the-fray maturity. If he can adjust on the fly, improve his retail politicking skills, and lean on key endorsements, DeSantis would at least stand a chance in Iowa.

DeSantis has prioritized hard power while avoiding concrete commitments towards Taiwan. During an international trip this past April, he emphasized the importance of deterrence in preventing China’s invasion of the island. Yet he refused to say whether he would support military action to defend Taiwan, comporting with Washington’s long standing policy of strategic ambiguity but standing in contrast to President Biden’s commitments to defend the island with force.

Nonetheless, other factors signal DeSantis’ willingness to pursue policies that help Taiwan. He is reportedly being briefed by national security experts who promote a hard line on China, including some who favor downsizing American support for Ukraine in favor of battling Beijing. And he has taken steps to counter Chinese influence as governor, including signing bills banning TikTok on government-issued devices and naming China a “foreign country of concern.” DeSantis recognizes China as America’s foremost geopolitical threat, even though it is unclear how he would respond to a Chinese invasion as president.

Vivek Ramaswamy – entrepreneur

Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old former biotech CEO, garnered attention following his splashy August debate performance, after which he hovered around 10% in nationwide polling and seemed viable in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, however, he looks more like a shooting star in the mold of Herman Cain in 2012 and Carly Fiorina in 2016. Ramaswamy polls in the single-digits nationally and in every early state. He lags Trump, DeSantis, and Haley in net favorability within the GOP and has struggled to nab meaningful endorsements. Put simply, a briefly-promising campaign seems all but dead.

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DES MOINES, IOWA - NOVEMBER 17: Republican Presidential Candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the Thanksgiving Family Forum at the downtown Marriott on November 17, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)

Ramaswamy has been dizzying in his attitude towards Taiwan. Firstly, he implied he would green-light a China invasion after establishing American semiconductor independence (“I am not going to send our sons and daughters to die over that conflict”). He later retreated, saying he favored abandoning strategic ambiguity, defending Taiwan vigorously, then returning to strategic ambiguity once the U.S. achieves semiconductor independence. Perhaps Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate who has entertained 9/11 conspiracy theories and called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a Nazi, is simply unserious on foreign policy.

Chris Christie – former Governor of New Jersey

Christie is unlikely to be the GOP nominee. Still, he has set himself apart by antagonizing Trump, and there are reasons to believe the former New Jersey governor could make a splash in the months leading up to Iowa. Firstly, his willingness to confront the former president offers Trump-fatigued voters something to grab onto. Secondly, he is wisely prioritizing New Hampshire, a state he knows well (he held more than 100 town halls there eight years ago). He polls at 12% in the Granite State, putting him in third place and leaving open at least the slight possibility that he notches an impressive second-place finish. Yet he is a non-factor in Iowa and South Carolina, so he needs to articulate policy positions—other than taking out Trump—that persuade voters that he is the right person to inherit the Republican mantle.

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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks at the Hudson Institute November 15, 2023 in Washington, DC. Christie spoke as part of the Hudson Institute’s Presidential Speech Series with presidential candidates. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

While Christie holds mostly traditional Republican viewpoints on international issues (e.g., support for further Ukraine aid), he has also gone further than his GOP rivals in saying that the U.S. has an obligation to protect Taiwan, and that a China invasion would have economic and military ramifications for Beijing. The former governor’s comments indicate he would be tough on the CCP—with sanctions, arms sales to Taipei, and even military force—if elected president.

Billy Stampfl is a second-year student at the University of Michigan Law School.

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