OPINION: Trump's Tariffs on Taiwan Point to a Deeper Truth

OPINION: Trump's Tariffs on Taiwan Point to a Deeper Truth
Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
What you need to know

The recent hit to Taiwan's steel industry raise questions about the nature of the relationship between Taiwan and the United States.

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By Brian Hioe

Concerns in Taiwan that it will be severely affected by steel and aluminum tariffs by the Trump administration are ironic, illustrating the perils of placing one’s faith in the Trump administration.

Perhaps Taiwan could learn something from this.

The Trump administration intends to instate a 10 percent tariff on aluminum and 25 percent tariff on steel, something that has provoked panic among American allies and warnings from China that raising tariffs in order to begin a trade war will not work out well for America.

Leaders of the European Union, including French president Emmanuel Macron, have also warned that the European Union will not hesitate to react to new American measures. Nevertheless, American president Donald Trump has been cavalier, claiming that a trade war could work in America’s benefit.

Taiwan stands to be severely affected by the trade tariffs, particularly seeing as America imported 5.67 percent of its steel products from Taiwan in 2017. Taiwan has faced penalties from other anti-dumping measures in the past.

Wishing to oppose China does not necessarily mean caring for Taiwan.

Global panic was briefly stemmed after the tariff announcement when American allies from the European Union, NAFTA countries and South Korea were eventually granted an exemption from the new tariffs. Panic began to set in again after it was declared that this exemption would be temporary. Allies continue to lobby the U.S. for exemptions, including Japan and Taiwan.

Taiwan has particularly seized upon the fact that Trump recently signed the TTA (TTA) into law, which will allow high-level visits between American and Taiwanese government leaders. Many in Taiwan perceived the TTA as signalling stronger support of Taiwan from the United States, but perhaps the trade tariffs imposed in Taiwan point to precisely the opposite – that Taiwan is still left out of the fold.

Indeed, against the argument that the TTA represents any true indicator of support for Taiwan by the Trump administration, the Trump administration released news of the TTA on a Friday night, when the White House usually releases information about new stories it hopes to quietly “kill.”

Similarly, the trade tariffs likely stem from economic policy recommendations by resurgent Trump policy adviser Peter Navarro, known for his strong anti-China views and protectionist view of economics. However, it has been a mistake in Taiwan to view Navarro as necessarily being a friend of Taiwan, despite past claims by Navarro that support for Taiwan needs to be stepped up. Namely, wishing to oppose China does not necessarily mean caring for Taiwan either. This can be said both of Navarro and recently appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton, another noted China hawk.

Part of this situation is certainly a product of the muddled nature of the Trump administration. For example, while the TPP trade agreement was designed to cement American power in the Asia Pacific to counter China, but Trump withdrew from the agreement at Navarro’s prompting.

What Taiwan should perhaps learn from all this is that, in Trump’s mind, American support for Taiwan is precisely predicated on a beneficial trade relation for America stemming from the America-Taiwan relationship – even if this is one highly extractive of Taiwan, as it is feared could result from the new tariffs.

When Trump has justified American support of Taiwan in the past, inclusive of controversial moves such as the Trump-Tsai call – which prompted global condemnation – this has been because Taiwan buys billions of dollars worth of arms from America.

And so, while Taiwan may presently seek an exemption from the tariff, probably accepting an extractive relationship with the U.S. would be more persuasive to the Trump administration. But this would be how American empire relates to its so-called “allies,” those that the U.S. maintains its relations with primarily out of rational interest rather than any true goodwill. This is a fairly basic tenet of geopolitics, but it is one which is often frequently forgotten by Taiwanese.

Efforts to find some kind of justification for the Trump administration’s actions, including claiming that Taiwan has been included in the tariffs because it has too uncomfortably close a relation with China for the Trump administration’s taste, are simply delusional. Much the same can be said about the belief that Taiwan has a special relationship with America in any way and believing that this could provide for tariffs.

It is logical, then, for America to demand an extractive relationship from its “allies” simply because it can. In this sense, those who believe in alliance between America and Taiwan on the basis of shared values of democracy and freedom are simply deceiving themselves and confusing the superficial self-deception of nation-states about their relations to each other with the hard reality of zero-sum geopolitics.

This, however, would be a longstanding issue faced by Taiwan and one it has never squarely reckoned with.

Read next: Trump Signs TTA, Earns Rap from Beijing

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston