“Taiwan’s January 2020 Election: The American Factor in President Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party’s Big Win”

Written by John F. Copper.

Image credit: 01.13 總統接見「華府智庫『美國企業研究院』民主及印太戰略訪問團」by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

The United States has long (since World War II) played a critical role in Taiwan’s politics, including its elections. The reason is apparent: in 1950 President Truman sent the 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to block Mao’s plan to invade the island; he saved Taiwan. America has served as Taiwan’s guardian ever since. Today China’s military could “liberate” Taiwan and make it part of China probably in a few hours if the US declined to intervene.

The United States was the model upon which Taiwan built its democracy. During its period of rapid economic growth nearly half of Taiwan’s exports went to the US. It is where most of Taiwan’s students went for advanced study, and they still do. The US is the only country in the world critical to Taiwan. Naturally America is well liked by Taiwan’s residents and most voters are aware of which presidential candidate the US favours, and this favour influences their votes.

However, America’s Taiwan policy has not been consistent. The US must deal with both China and Taiwan. For a while President Obama seemed to favour a policy of abandoning Taiwan because US defences were weakening while China’s were rising and he did not want, as he said, to stay involved in China’s civil war. He subsequently changed his view but policies favourable to Taiwan did not follow. Early on President Trump expected China would help alleviate the US trade deficit and assist Washington to deal with the North Korean nuclear and missile threats. But he was disappointed. He then adopted a policy some called “playing the Taiwan card.” It was clearly a pro-Taiwan policy.

It coincides closely with President Tsai’s Ing-wen popularity leaping from a very low point in the wake of the 2018 mid-term election to winning numbers, and her re-election by a good margin in January this year. Clearly the US with Donald Trump as president was in some part accountable for both.

Here is some evidence for the factor of warming US-Taiwan ties. In the spring of 2018, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act and Trump forthwith signed it into law. The Act called for US and Taiwan top officials to visit each other, which had not happened since President Jimmy Carter first established formal diplomatic relations with China. Tsai lauded the Act.

The second piece of evidence was the completion of a new building housing the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), America’s “pseudo embassy” near Taipei. It got extensive press coverage because of the $255 million cost and its uniqueness – art on display, a time capsule buried on the grounds, and more. At the opening ceremony, Tsai spoke of it representing even closer US-Taiwan relations.

In May the US House of Representatives unanimously approved the Taiwan Assurance Act, which called for the US to increase defence spending, sell arms to Taiwan and support Taiwan’s participation in international organisations. This was followed by passage of the John S. McCain National Defence Authorisation Act. It supported defence cooperation with Taiwan and America’s continued role as Taiwan’s protector.

Shortly after the Assurance Act was passed, the Trump administration approved President Tsai making two stops in the US while on a diplomatic trip to Paraguay and Belize. She visited Los Angeles and Houston, America’s second and fourth largest cities, with some fanfare.

At year’s end Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) that cited high-level US officials visiting Taiwan being in accord with the Taiwan Travel Act. Tsai responded with profuse satisfaction in her New Year’s address. In July 2019 the US approved the sale of $2.2 billion in arms to Taiwan. The designated purpose was to enhance Taiwan’s defence capabilities. Tsai expressed “sincere gratitude” for the sale.

Tsai then made a diplomatic trip to visit Caribbean countries. There were two stops in the United States, in New York and Denver. The transits were longer and more important than any previous transits. Tsai met Senator Cory Gardner, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia. She spoke to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi via a teleconference call and thanked her for supporting arms sales to Taiwan. She addressed groups of Taiwan residents living in New York in what some media people depicted as a campaign speech.

Shortly after Tsai’s trip, Trump confirmed the sale of 66 F-16V fighter aircraft to Taiwan worth a stunning $8 billion dollars. It was the fourth arms agreement by the Trump administration and the largest in 20 years. According to the builder, Lockheed Martin, the planes would fly and fight to the year 2070 and beyond. Tsai thanked the US for providing for a “new air force.”

In September when China announced establishing diplomatic relations with Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, Trump’s Department of State criticised China and declared “luring Taiwan’s allies away was harmful and undermines regional security.” Top officials in Taiwan subsequently stated that Trump is the best US president ever in terms of relations with Taiwan.

After the January election, the Secretary of State speaking for President Trump congratulated President Tsai for her re-election and stated Taiwan was a force for good. Others in the Trump administration also sent messages of congratulations while applauding Tsai and Taiwan’s democracy.

Summarising Trump’s relationship with Tsai, it is noteworthy that Trump took a telephone call from Tsai in 2016 when doing so violated US diplomatic protocol. When the DPP lost the mid-term election in 2018 and Tsai was widely blamed in Taiwan for the defeat, Trump did not forsake her. Likewise, during the primary campaign when Tsai’s poll numbers were hovering around half of former premier William Lai’s and, according to the local media, Tsai and top leaders of her party rigged the primary so that she would defeat Lai, Trump did not comment.

From 2018 to 2020 Trump succoured Tsai’s campaign by serving as her rear guard. She would not have dared challenging China without Trump’s America on her side.

Trump was also forgiving. He made nothing of the fact that Tsai had supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and that Hillary’s people visited Taiwan for fund raising. Likewise, he made little of Taiwan not spending enough on defence and its trade surplus with the US.

This can be explained in part by the fact the State Department regarded William Lai, because of views he espoused supporting Taiwan’s independence, as “worse than Chen Shui-bian” and saw Tsai as a bastion of stability and rationality. Also, Department of State officials didn’t cotton to Mayor Han Kuo-yu, seeing him as capricious and unpredictable.

Looking ahead while attempting to predict US-Taiwan relations, much may depend on the US trade agreement with China. In fact, some top DPP leaders have fretted that Trump may make up with China and “throw Taiwan under the bus.” Yet this does not seem likely for three reasons: one, US-China trade competition will likely continue, though at a reduced level of tension. Also, there will not likely be a diminishing level of competition in other areas. Two, abandoning Taiwan would be a serious blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to rebuild American military power in Asia, as it would precipitate a loss of support from US allies and friends. Three, civilian leaders in China, although they have been critical of Tsai, do not want to make Taiwan a more contentious issue. They have other issues to worry about and their deadline is 2049, which is a long way off.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Distinguished Professor (emeritus) of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty-five books on China, Taiwan and U.S. Asia policy, including Donald J. Trump and China published this past summer and Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? 7th edition published in December

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