What you need to know
Taiwan's strategic interest to the US is heading for the discard pile.
U.S. President Donald Trump concluded his Asia-Pacific trip a few weeks ago, but its outcome is still being questioned. Trump’s meeting in Beijing with President Xi Jinping was by far the most important engagement given China plays an inceasingly direct competitor to the United States.
From the perspective of Taipei, the importance of the Xi-Trump meeting lay in the potential effects of both powers policy towards the disputed island. Taiwan however was not the primary emphasis of the bilateral held this month—the issue having already been addressed during Trump’s transition period. Thus with an eye on Taiwan’s strategic position within the United States’ wider Asia strategy, this article roughly categorizes four major roles of Taiwan: Taiwan Card, Strategic Inaction, Marginalization, and Abandoning Taiwan, ranked from highest to lowest strategic value.
Under President Obama’s rebalancing strategy Taiwan was of significantly higher geopolitical strategic value than under Donald Trump. Taiwan’s strategic value was mainly demonstrated in the following aspects. First, at the level of Sino-U.S. relations, the Obama administration adopted a policy towards Taiwan rigidly abiding the Three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, and Six Assurances. This policy indicated that the United States did not intend to change the status quo of Cross-Strait relations, which was one of the most sensitive issues for Beijing.
Second, rather than officially encompassing Taiwan into its alliance system, the Obama administration preferred to emphasize the friendly partnership with the Taipei government through informal approaches. For example, although then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not mention the role of Taiwan in her article titled America’s Pacific Century—which was widely considered the formal declaration of Obama’s rebalancing strategy—she unofficially defined Taiwan as an important security and economic partner of America within the Asia-Pacific region.
In this way, Obama’s policy did not weaken the role of Taiwan but obscured Taiwan as a strategic card and increasing its flexibility in the interaction with the Chinese government.
Third, at the tactical level, the Obama government intended to use the Taiwan as a “counterweight” to balance the relations between mainland China and the United States. Obama’s arms sale after the historical meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou might be a suitable case to demonstrate how Taiwan acted as a counterweight in Sino-U.S. relations. In this regard, Obama’s strategic design not only essentially enhanced the significance of Taiwan in the Asia-Pacific region, but was also helpful in preserving the strategic value of Taiwan with a flexible application of the Taiwan Card, when required.
The adjustment of America’s grand strategy is usually accompanied by a presidential rotation. Donald Trump has an unpredictable behavioral style, which may ultimately lead to a very different foreign strategy compared with the Obama administration.
As a key pillar of the Asia-Pacific strategy for America, the policy towards Taiwan is inevitably influenced by the change of president in America. In other words, America’s new Taiwan policy is largely determined by Trump’s strategic idea (or lack thereof) of Asia-Pacific region. While Trump’s strategy is ambiguous, it is still possible for observers to trace the characteristics of his ideas, which mainly consist of three elements: the guiding principle, tactics, and issue-orientation.
The only thing that Trump does not deny since he took office is the principle of “America First,” which requires Washington to replace “Globalism” with an America-centric approach. Extended to foreign strategy, the America First principle of the Trump administration asserts that the interests of traditional allies are tradeable and the strategic credibility of alliances is not as important.
From a tactical perspective, the Trump administration prefers to interplay with China through deal-making negotiations, which differs from Obama’s reconstruction of rules and institutions in the Asia-Pacific region to balance the rise of China. In regards to issue-orientation, Donald Trump departs from various issues—ranging from Taiwan and North Korea — by proposing a complete and clear strategic layout for the Asia-Pacific region. The aforementioned elements construct Trump’s ideas and beliefs of the Asia-Pacific strategy, with the Taiwan problem becoming the first issue to be faced with his strategic ideas.
The consumption of Taiwan began with the phone call between the leaders of the Washington and Taipei governments in December 2016, when president-elect Trump broke the unspoken rules between mainland China and the United States to have a formal communication with Tsai Ing-wen.
This unexpected action caused a wide-range of international responses. Following the call, Trump further asserted that the United States did not necessarily have to stick to its long-standing position that Taiwan is a part of “One China,” bringing into question nearly four decades of policy. This certainly triggered a great discontent from the Chinese government. However, the real rationale behind Trump’s challenge of “One China” can be interpreted as follows:
Firstly, relying on America First, Trump’s calculation of challenging “One China” is not to reaffirm the commitment of security and defense on Taiwan but is to rather rapidly raise the strategic value of the Taiwan Card as a bargaining chip in the economic and trade negotiation with mainland China. Secondly, Trump’s deal-making negotiation set Taiwan as a product, increasing the possibility of exchanging vital interests between mainland China and the United States. Thirdly, Trump’s issue-orientation may make his strategic attention quickly shift when such issue can no longer provide an attractive interest in satisfying his America First principle. In other words, while Taiwan attracted a wide-range of international attention in the short term, Trump’s policy towards Taiwan may lead to the effect of excessive consumption, which is an unaffordable price for Tsai Ing-wen administration.
The overuse of Taiwan is further demonstrated after the Trump and Tsai phone call incident. In February 2017, Trump realized his return of “One China” when he had a phone communication with Xi Jinping. In the first Xi-Trump meeting held in April, Trump reiterated that he would honor “One China” to maintain the stable and friendly relations with mainland China, causing him to reject Tsai’s request for another phone call and avoid making trouble for President Xi Jinping. Apart from the regular resistance of the Chinese government, the continued arms sales to Taiwan during Trump’s administration did not trigger a significant amount of international attention because the amount and type of weapons were not beyond expected. Regarding the most recent interactions between the United States and mainland China, Trump just repeated his stance to honor the “One China” principle during the second Xi-Trump meeting.
In addition, the author argues that the overused effect will be increasingly exaggerated because of other sparking issues generated by the complex and volatile Asia-Pacific situation. As previously discussed, the issue-orientation indicates that many other, more attractive issues may distract Trump’s attention from the Taiwan problem. For example, the new round of the North Korea nuclear crisis has become the main field for the Sino-U.S. political struggle in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, even if the nuclear crisis could be peacefully resolved, the Trump administration still has to confront various issues, including South China Sea disputes, U.S.-Russian relations, and the new strategic concept of “Indo-Pacific,” which are seemingly much more attractive than an excessively consumed Taiwan problem.
In this vein, from Obama to Trump, a possible scenario for the change of Taiwan’s strategic role is as follows. Attributable to the overuse of Taiwan by Trump in his transition period, the strategic role of Taiwan transformed from the Taiwan Card to Strategic Inaction. Complicated by other issues in the Asia-Pacific region, the strategic role of Taiwan may further evolve into Marginalization in Trump’s following term. Thus, to avoid being abandoned, the self-preservation of Taiwan’s strategic value has become one of the most urgent tasks for Tsai’s administration.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the Taiwan Studies Program.
TNL Editor: Morley J Weston