US Academic Wary of Trump Isolationism for Taiwan Security

US Academic Wary of Trump Isolationism for Taiwan Security
Photo Credit: EPA/ 達志影像

After winning the Indiana primary last week, US presidential candidate Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president.  

Until this point in the campaign, for many, there has been a sense of incredulity about the rise of Trump. Now, he faces a showdown with likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Notwithstanding that some commentators are labeling Trump as “the walking dead,” given his underdog status in the general elections, it may be time to start taking what he says, and what his presidency could mean for the rest of the world, a touch more seriously.

Bill Sharp is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Taiwan History at Academia Sinica in Taipei. He says, like most commentators, it remains “unclear” exactly what Trump’s approach to Asia and other countries would look like. However, Sharp is wary of the potential consequences for security and trade in Asia, and Taiwan in particular, if Trump’s isolationist policies are put into action.

“This part of the world has been able to prosper based on the security and stability that American foreign policy has given to it,” Sharp told The News Lens. “When you go into a cocoon of isolationism you invite security challenges that you otherwise might not see. I am not sure Mr. Trump quite sees that.”

Sharp has some sympathy for Trump’s position that the US has paid “too much” to support European security in recent decades – he notes many European countries enjoy substantial social welfare states while the US has “picked up the slack” of their small defense budgets. But he points to 1930s, when isolationism was in vogue in the US, and says ultimately Americans ended up “paying a price” when global stability diminished ahead of World War II.

TPP and Tsai Ing-wen

Trump’s leanings toward US protectionism and his position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership – he is  against it along with many other trade deals – is also a problem for Sharp.

One of the pillars of US policy in Asia, he says, is premised on the notion that Asia is where the wealth of the world is going to come from in the future; the US needs to maintain its position now in order to benefit in the long-term. Securing the TPP – potentially boosting trade, strengthening the US ties to the region and of course balancing China’s growing influence –  is therefore important for the US, he says.

Trump’s threat to walk away from the TPP also impacts Taiwan, even though it was not one of the 12 countries that signed the agreement when it was inked in February. The potential to join remains important, in particular to the incoming Tsai Ing-wen administration as it seeks to grow island’s struggling economy while shifting away from dependence on China. Being part of a major regional trade pact, one that is not governed by the mainland, could be a key way to help achieve the dual aim.

“I’m certain that the DPP wants to back away from China, it wants to be closer to the US,” Sharp says. “I would like to see Taiwan in the TPP because that would reduce its economic dependence on China. It would also reduce the amount of influence that China has over Taiwan.”

One difficulty for the DPP in reaching this goal, outside of Trump, is that even under the Obama administration there are competing views as to how involved with Taiwan the US wants to be.

“Some statements that are coming out of Washington, whether it is just being said for mainland Chinese consumption or if it is really the view, suggest that the US wants the DPP to continue in the footsteps on the Kuomintang [which forged closer ties with China over the past eight years while it has been in power],” Sharp says.

Then, he says, there are “some people in Washington” who are “more friendly towards Taiwan, and at the same time are more sceptical about China.”

He points to Admiral Harry Harris, who as The New York Times reported has “turned heads — and caused headaches — in Beijing as well as in Washington” after publicly expressing concern over China.

Animosity towards Japan and the China question

Another pillar of US foreign policy in Asia that Trump seems at least capable of threatening is the country’s strategic alliances in the region, including Japan. Sharp says while the US is very dependent on its “rock solid” relationship with Japan, “Trump seems to have a lot of festering animosity toward Japan.”

This may date back to the 1980s when Japan, then an economic powerhouse, was buying up real estate in Trump’s home turf of New York, Sharp says. “That probably hit close to home for him.”

Trump, if president, should not tamper with the “close” US-Japan relationship, Sharp says.

Regardless of which of the two front-runners become president, both are likely to say in the lead up to the election that they will be “tougher on China.”

Sharp shares “to some degree” Trump’s views of the threat posed by China’s cyber-warfare capabilities and the position that some of China’s financial practices appear “highly questionable.”

Clinton, if elected, will take a harder line with Beijing than the Obama administration has, Sharp says. While with Trump “we don’t really know what the reality will be,”  throughout the campaign he has criticized the impact of China on the US, he says.

But what does the US being “tougher on China” actually look like? Will the US just be stricter on trade practices, or will it be more assertive in responding to China’s claims in the South China Sea?

Sharp says these issues are “very tricky” given the economic and security interdependence in the region.  

“In today’s world, especially in Asia, everybody wants a solid economic relationship with China but they are wary about China’s intentions,” he says.“They really don’t trust China very much and they want the security assurance of the United States.”

For Taiwan’s part, president-elect Tsai has signaled she aims to build up Taiwan’s internal defense capacity. And, Sharp notes, that unlike former president Chen Shui-bian, who had the same aim, Tsai has the votes in the legislature to achieve it.

Whoever is president by the end of the year, the DPP will still want to be seen as a more reliable and independent defense partner to the US. “Just how much more the US wants to be involved with the DPP, might be the question,” Sharp says.

The New York Times