By Liam Joel Han
The unofficial bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan is arguably one of the most important in the Asia-Pacific region, if not the world. For Taiwan in particular, this relationship forms the basis of its continued freedom and security. The commander-in-chief of the U.S. is a key figure in guiding foreign policy, and as such it would be prudent for Taipei to be conscious of what a change in administration in Washington could mean for the future.
Given her track record of being tough on China, Hillary Clinton, until recently seen as the heir-apparent to the Obama administration, poses little concern for the Taiwanese government. However, the unexpected rise of Bernie Sanders could potentially cause the much-coveted “status quo” to be affected in ways that will have long-lasting repercussions.
Taiwan itself, having just witnessed a historic transfer in both legislative and executive power, may currently be preoccupied with domestic reforms. But it should be prepared for the very real chance of an unanticipated and unconventional POTUS.
Announcing his candidacy on May 26, 2015, Sanders has staged a spectacular campaign that has resulted in him moving from relative obscurity, polling far behind Hillary Clinton, to a genuine contender for the Democrat nomination. While still facing challenges, Sanders currently enjoys approximately 43 percent of the overall popular primary vote, due in large part to his message of clean and representative governance. The potential for a surprise victory therefore cannot be discounted.
As in the recent elections in Taiwan, Sanders’ overriding rhetoric has focused primarily on domestic issues, with removing money from the political process being particularly salient. Specifics regarding foreign policy, meanwhile, have been surprisingly hard to determine, with both Democrat candidates relying heavily on rhetoric. This is a failure on both sides, but arguably less problematic with Clinton due to her status as a former secretary of state, a role in the executive branch by which we can judge her abilities.
Given the unlikeliness that the issue of Taiwan will be brought up directly in the primaries, Sanders’ stance on Taiwan can only be gleaned from his congressional voting record. During his time in congress, two important bills concerning Taiwan’s security were voted on: HR 238 – Missile Defense Cooperation (1997), and S Amdt 634 – Sale of F-16s (2011). Sanders voted nay on both.
Furthermore, despite references to Tibet on his web site, with wording that implies that Tibet is not a part of China, there is not a single mention of Taiwan. Commenting on Tibet might signal that Sanders is sympathetic to the idea of self-determination, however sentiment rarely achieves much in and of itself and, as his voting record has demonstrated, he is unlikely to actively seek to deter Chinese aggression by providing Taiwan with modern arms.
This exposes a crucial weakness on Taiwan’s part: over-reliance on the U.S. for weapons. Hopefully president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) will follow through on her campaign platform of developing the domestic defense industry.
There is, however, one Sanders policy that could be a boon to democratic Taiwan. If he were successful in his goal of eradicating money in the American political system and reducing the influence that big corporations have in policy making, the U.S. government could have more room to maneuver and to make demands when in talks with Beijing without fear or campaign contributions being used as a bargaining chip to curtail strong criticism. In addition, due to the nature of the U.S. defense industry as an extremely important part of the economy — the Department of Defense alone employs approximately 3 million people — Sanders could still be compelled to promote the continued sale of arms to Taiwan simply as a means to preserve thousands of jobs for Americans.
The final, and potentially critical, issue for the Taiwanese government to consider in its assessment of what a Sanders presidency might mean is his stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Sanders is firmly against the U.S. joining the trade bloc, meaning that even if Taiwan became a signatory, it would not have the type of unfettered access to the largest market in the world needed to help ease its reliance on China. Furthermore, it could make it more difficult for Taiwan to join due to the pressure China would be able to exert on smaller countries in the absence of U.S. reassurances.
Clinton, on the other hand, has overtly stated that Taiwan should diversify its economy to avoid political coercion by China, lending credence to the belief that she would support Taiwan joining any treaty or organization that reduces dependence on China.
In general, the future Taiwanese president should have three expectations when it comes to her American counterpart:
1. Consistent rhetoric indicating continued support for Taiwanese democracy;
2. Arms sales that reinforce said rhetoric;
3. Economic policies that promote Taiwanese autonomy and participation in the international community.
Thus far, Sanders has failed to inspire confidence that he will satisfy the first two, and his economic policies seem to focus primarily on the domestic market rather than greater integration into a globalized economy, which suggests that he would be unlikely to promote greater Taiwanese participation in any non-symbolic way.
A Sanders presidency could thus be characterized as a domestically focused one, and while he has not stated that he wishes to drastically alter the U.S.’ position in the world, his preoccupation with internal issues may be interpreted as a step back from world affairs, to the detriment of some of the U.S.’ allies, particularly vulnerable ones such as Taiwan.
With that said, Sanders would still be constrained to some degree by Congress, which has typically been Taiwan’s greatest ally. Thus, legislators could step in if they felt that president Sanders was seriously endangering the island nation, as it did with the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979.
Overall, a Clinton presidency would conceivably create more opportunities for Taiwan due to her being innately more foreign policy orientated. In addition, there is the possibility that Clinton may feel slightly more personally invested in Taiwan due Tsai, thus creating a bridge of mutual understanding between two first female presidents. Sanders, on the other hand, more than likely represents a continuation of Obama’s policies, and perhaps even a return to the posture that Taiwan shouldn’t be a “troublemaker” expecting the U.S. to intervene on its behalf, which would denote a massive setback for Taiwan’s progression toward becoming a normalized state in the international community.
Should Sanders be elected, Taipei would have to formulate a new, relatively cautious approach to how Taiwan intends to proceed, at least until Sanders’ positions are more clear. Nevertheless, this primary election and soon the general election demonstrate just how vulnerable Taiwan is to the ebb and flow of domestic U.S. politics and how Taiwan should strive to foster stronger relations with other countries to complement its relationship with Washington.
Having spent time in the U.S., Hong Kong and China, Liam Joel Han returns to Taiwan at least once a year. Currently a student in the United Kingdom, his research interests focus on Taiwan’s international relations, security and growing civic identity. His current dissertation centers on analyzing the extent to which the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s pro-China policies have contributed to a rising and distinct Taiwanese consciousness. The views expressed in this article are his alone.
 Tucker, N. B. & Glaser, B. (2011) “Should The United States Abandon Taiwan?” The Washington Quarterly, 34(4) 23-37.
First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original text was published on Thinking Taiwan: Will Taiwan Feel the Bern?