Trump’s “Taiwan Card”: How Real?

Written by John F. Copper

Image credit: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

For more than two years the liberal Western media, especially in the United States, have talked and written extensively about America’s relations with Taiwan under Donald J. Trump. During this period their narratives embraced two different themes: first, the relationship was managed badly and second, Taiwan is a “card” Trump is playing against China. In any case, Taiwan had not been in the news much before this; now it is.

It started in December 2016. After Donald J. Trump won the presidential election but before his inauguration, he took a telephone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. They talked for ten minutes, though reportedly not about anything important. The very fact Trump had agreed to speak to Taiwan’s president went viral. President-elect Trump, the media charged, violated a long-standing US’ China/Taiwan policy of no direct contact between top US and Taiwan leaders. This would poison relations with China.

Making matters worse, Trump then said that he would not allow China to dictate what he does, and he did not see America’s one-China policy as set in stone. The Western media promptly reported that US-China relations had become tense or worse. They expected the two powers to go to a higher DEFCON (defense readiness condition) level and even said President Xi Jinping may be preparing for war.

Major news outlets, however, were soon disappointed to learn that President Xi hardly reacted to Trump’s statements; after all Donald Trump wasn’t president yet and Chinese leaders understood he liked to create controversy and even tension as that was his preferred prelude for negotiating. Also, Chinese leaders were aware Donald Trump was a transactional president (as they read this in his books) unlike America’s previous presidents, and he was someone they could deal with.

In February 2017 (when he was president), President Trump made a volte-face. He spoke to President Xi and told him that he would honour America’s one-China policy. Xi’s advisors told him Trump kept his promises. What President Trump said also signalled (which Henry Kissinger confirmed after meeting with both President Xi and President Trump) he viewed China as a major world power (which Chinese leaders appreciated) and felt US relations with China were critical to both countries and to the global financial order. This quashed the media’s storyline that President Trump would likely go to war with China over Taiwan.

In April 2017, President Xi visited President Trump at his “winter white house” in Mar-a-Lago, Florida and the two leaders became friends and agreed to work out differences between them. They met again in the fall when President Trump visited Asia. During both meetings the two leaders connected, extended their mutual friendship and mulled future US-China relations.

However, in ensuing months, as America’s economy boomed (a product of President Trump’s cutting taxes and regulations), the US trade deficit with China grew — when it was supposed to contract as a result of Trump-Xi agreements. There was also in lull in US efforts to negotiate with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons and missile threats to South Korea and Japan and even the US — about which China had agreed to facilitate. Although both issues would require time to resolve, this led to a turnabout in President Trump’s close relationship with China. Meanwhile the US public came to view the US trade deficit with China as serious as the loss of US intellectual property. Both fuelled a downward spiral in US-China relations.

At this juncture, Trump playing the Taiwan card became part of the media story. President Trump, the media reported, was using the “Taiwan card” as a weapon to use against China. There were indeed matters and events that justified the media thinking President Trump was improving relations with Taiwan perhaps to use as leverage against Beijing. But they were commonly exaggerated and/or misinterpreted.

For example, in February 2018, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act that allowed high US officials to visit Taiwan and vice versa. (It was US diplomatic practice before this they would not go to Taiwan in order to avoid goading China.) President Trump signed the act in March, indicating he was taking a pro-Taiwan position since he might have used his veto pen or not acted, and the bill would have become law without his signature.

Some US officials visited Taiwan and when they did the Western media reported on each occasion as if it were important. But the list was not long, and the results were unremarkable. In June 2018, the US opened a new American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) building near Taipei. The media called it a “US embassy in everything but name”, citing its impressive looks and its high price — USD 255 million. The building opened for business in September, affording another occasion for the media to report chummier US-Taiwan ties and President Trump employing the Taiwan card.

What wasn’t mentioned about the Taiwan Travel Act was that the media often criticized the previous practice of not allowing US top officials to visit Taiwan as petty and unnecessary. Nor was the fact the Act was the work of Congress not the Trump White House made clear. In the case of the AIT building, it had been on the drawing board for some time. Much of the work on it was done during the Obama presidency. Also, it was needed for security reasons.

In any case the media barely mentioned the fact that Peter Navarro, President Trump’s pro-Taiwan economic advisor, did not visit Taiwan. Nor did they say much about the recent appointment of John Bolton to the position of National Security Advisor to the President, who also didn’t go. Bolton, like Navarro, had long espoused a hard line on China and was a known friend of Taiwan.

Earlier and again in December, the US agreed on an arms sales package for Taiwan. On both occasions this made headline news. Many reporters interpreted this as the Trump administration’s fondness for Taiwan and evidence President Trump wanted to help Taiwan defend itself against China. But the Taiwan Relations Act, passed into law by Congress in 1979, required the sales. Also, the transactions were not especially large and did not include new or other sophisticated weapons Taiwan wanted to buy. In fact, Defense News said the sales were “not militarily significant.”

Meanwhile, the US and other Western news outlets reported lavishly on Taiwan’s President Tsai thanking the US for its support for Taiwan and her condemning China for bullying Taiwan while tagging it an authoritarian dictatorship (and Taiwan being a democracy). Little to nothing was said about the gulf between Tsai’s leftist-progressive and politically correct agenda that was not in sync with Trump’s views. Likewise, Trump’s complaints of Taiwan not paying its share on defence and the US having a trade deficit with Taiwan did not make headlines. Finally, it was only back page news that Hillary Clinton had been to Taiwan during the election campaign to raise money or that Tsai had endorsed her for president.

In November 2018, the media reported on the “mid-term” election in Taiwan saying it advanced Taiwan’s democracy. They said and wrote less about Taiwan’s Nationalist Party (the KMT) winning the vote decisively, or that most pundits in Taiwan attributed the election outcome to voters’ dismay over President Tsai’s poor performance in office and her party calling for Taiwan’s legal independence.

Subsequently the media reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a group of US senators proposed that President Tsai be invited to the US to speak to Congress. Little mention was made of the fact the number of senators was small and the idea generated scant enthusiasm in Taiwan or elsewhere.

Nor was it widely reported that a former head of AIT and a noted expert on US’ Taiwan policy, Richard Bush (no relation to the former Bush presidents), in the context of President Tsai’s post-election attacks on China for influencing Taiwan’s election and a proposal by a group in President Tsai’s party to hold an independence referendum, said the US did not support Taiwan’s independence and Washington opposed either side (but in this case specifically Taiwan) trying to change the status quo. Finally, it was almost totally ignored that the Trump administration announced specifically it opposed such a referendum.

Bush also stated that during an early 2018 National Security Council meeting, President Trump asked: “What do we get from protecting Taiwan?” Bush interpreted Trump’s question as reflecting Trump’s opposition to “long-standing” defence commitments that might get the US involved in wars such as his two predecessors had engaged in that were very costly in money and soldiers’ lives. In other words, President Trump loathed such wars and even wars in general, a point the media almost forgot to report.

Nor did the Western media say much about President Trump’s penchant for considering public opinion when making foreign policy decisions that involved committing US troops to the field of battle. That being the case, it is worth noting that the Chicago Council on World Affairs regularly polled Americans on the issue of whether to deploy the military to defend Taiwan. The latest poll done in 2018, like several earlier polls, concluded the answer is no.

In recent weeks, the Western press reported that US Navy ships passed through the South China Sea to brandish American power and support Taiwan, that Washington supports Taiwan’s membership in some international agencies that China has kept it out of, and that Taiwan’s ruling party perceives the Trump administration is “normalizing relations” with Taiwan. But none of these items rose to the level of important (certainly not strategic) policy announcements.

The Western press also informed lavishly on ex-House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan visiting Taiwan for the 40th anniversary of Congress passing the Taiwan Relations Act. They quoted Ryan saying, “the world should be more like Taiwan” and Taiwan is “a reliable partner.” There might have been a footnote saying Ryan is perhaps the least likely person President Trump will listen to about US’ Asia policy, or anything else.

Meanwhile, not given much space in US papers were some “inconvenient” facts: President Trump has no plan to speak to President Tsai again, he won’t meet with the Dalai Lama, and he will send US Navy ships only on “innocent passage” trips through the South China Sea. According to Michael Pillsbury, a preeminent American scholar and advisor to President Trump on China policy, Trump has closer relations with China’s top leader than any past president, notwithstanding the current tiff over trade. Clearly there is a gap between President Trump’s Taiwan policy and what the media has reported it to be.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies (emeritus) at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty books on China, Taiwan and US Asia policy. This article was originally published in the IPP Review and can be found here.

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