President Tsai Needs to Choose her Allies Wisely in the Post-Pandemic US

Written by Fumiko Sasaki.

Image credit:The White House by angela n./Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

The Trump administration has intensified its anti-China campaign. Consequently, rhetoric has been strongly pro-Taiwan. Due to the increased negative sentiment toward China in the U.S., the presidential candidate from each party will need to take a tough stance toward China to win the election. Regardless of the election outcome, President Tsai Ing-Wen should not anticipate such trends to continue and must be wise in aligning with allies inside the U.S.

I conducted over twenty interviews with foreign policy experts. I also undertook extensive desk research to understand who and what impacts U.S. policy on the dispute between China and Taiwan over the latter’s sovereignty. I found that the two commonly referenced groups in the administration, globalists and nationalists, are not in themselves sufficiently precise to predict what comes next when variables change. I unveiled five stances toward China among the Washington D.C. policy-making community, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Map of the Stances toward China

pic 1

The five stances are combinations of either averse to or pro-China, and are either ideological or calculative: (a) averse to China and ideological, being either ‘ideologists’ or ‘protectionists’; (b) averse to China and calculative, being ‘strategic-realists’; (c) pro-China and calculative, being ‘business-realists’; and (d)  calculative and neutral toward China, being ‘liberal-realists.’ The thinking of any one individual cannot be fully categorised in such a simple framework but provides a representative overview.

Ideologists are defined herein as ideologically opposed to China. They are mainly anti-communist and human-rights advocates with an anti-authoritarian ideological underpinning. Republicans are traditionally anti-communist with their belief in capitalism. Christians tend to be anti-communist due to their belief in religious freedom. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, and Mike Pence, the Vice President—both Republican and Evangelicals—are tough on China. Cuban refugees, like Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Crus and Bob Menendez, and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, are strident anti-communists and anti-authoritarian. Those who experienced China’s brutal authoritarian treatment, like Matthew Pottinger, the deputy National Security Advisor, dislike its rule. An interviewee suggests that any U.S. officials who lived in China would not view China positively.

Protectionists are those who are critical of China condoning unfair economic activities such as intellectual property theft, forceful technology transfer and state-subsidised businesses. They were ideological as trade fundamentalists—in not being calculative—such that tariffs put on China did not necessarily benefit the U.S. as a whole. Protectionists would criticise a democratic capitalist China if they considered its trade practice to be unfair. They include Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, and Peter Navarro, an economic advisor to Trump.

Business-realists are defined herein as those strongly pro-China due to the extent of their business interests. They do not care whether a country is either democratic or authoritarian. Some are particularly influential in Trump’s personal decisions toward China. Sheldon Alderson, a billionaire casino businessman, is known for being pro-China due to his casino ownership interests making 70% of its revenue from Macao gaming in 2019. Stephen Schwartzman, a financial executive, is known for Schwartzman Scholars program at Tsinghua University; Trump-appointed Mr Schwartzman as the chair of an economic forum in his administration. In principle, Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, belong to this group. This group seems to have pushed forward to widen the financial market in China under this administration.

Strategic-realists are defined as those who desire to maintain U.S. global military influence. They oppose any expansion of China’s power that would reduce U.S. influence. Typically, strategic-realists are institutionalised in the Pentagon and the Military, who adhere to Alfred Mahan’s idea of ‘the Influence of Sea Power.’ H. T. McMaster, a former Trump national security advisor, who served the U.S. military, was responsible for the 2017 National Security Strategy that states, “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.” Anyone who has ever experienced the U.S. military seemingly belongs to this group, including Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense and Mark Miley, the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. Tom Cotton, a veteran Congressman, and the late-Senator John McCain, a famous veteran Republican, was pro-Taiwan.

Liberal-realists are those who aim to maximise national interest through diplomacy. They are not fully calculative because they also believe in democracy and a rule-based world order. They believe that the U.S. must co-exist with China, albeit even if not amicably, and at the same time are critical of China’s oppressive and ruleless behaviour. For this group, the tension between these two nations is dangerous, insofar that China’s sense of insecurity should be acknowledged, and that the U.S. should engage China for the interests of itself. Liberal-realists are represented by about 100 signatories of the open letter to the President and Congress. They protest the current administration’s ideological response to China. The initiators of the letter include Michael Swaine at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Stapleton Roy, a scholar at the Wilson Center, and former senior diplomat Susan Thornton.

Where is President Trump on this spectrum? First, his sole focus is re-election this fall. Being transactional as a business realist in nature, Trump sides with any group that would assist his victory in the swing states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. Therefore, he needs to bolster his appeal to farmers and blue-collar workers who may determine the outcome of the election. For these voters, the protectionists are resonating as this group seeks to widen markets for farmers and prevent Chinese technology theft.

However, solely enticing voters is not enough to win the election. Trump needs campaign funding. And the need for deep pockets tilts toward business-realists. Many donors to the Trump campaign—mainly in financial businesses, casinos, and natural resource-related industries—look to profit from China. For example, Adelson, whose pro-Israel commitment is said to have driven Trump’s pro-Israel policies, is reported to have called on Trump to avoid exerting a trade war with China. He warned Trump  of “the possible implications of a worsened trade situation both for the U.S. economy and the President’s re-election chances.”

Without the COVID-19 crisis, President Trump would have positioned himself with both protectionists and business-realists. However, in light of his administration’s failure to adequately respond to the pandemic—and with 40 million people now unemployed—Trump must confront the decline in his approval rating. As a result, he has gravitated toward ideologists and accused China of being the source of the Coronavirus crisis and massive job losses.

While Pence delivered a speech that criticised China’s authoritarianism in 2018, Trump did not criticise China, and even as late as February 29, 2020, Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his successful handling of COVID-19: “China seems to be making tremendous progress. Their numbers are way down.… I think our relationship with China is very good.” It was only after the criticism of his handling of the Coronavirus that Trump joined the ideologist’s attack on China. He labelled COVID-19 the “China virus,” following Pompeo who called it the “Wuhan virus.”

Trump has ‘escalated confrontation’ with China by announcing withdrawal from the World Health Organisation based on it being overly tilted toward China. Pottinger recently spoke to the Chinese people in their language on the importance of democracy. Finally, Pompeo congratulated President Tsai In-wen at her inauguration May 20, outraging China.

Regardless of which candidate prevails in the election this fall, this anti-China campaign will not last long beyond the counting of the final ballot. If Trump successfully secures his second term, he will distance himself from the ideological camp as this would otherwise restrain his transactional instinct to benefit from dealings with China. Once re-elected, and relieved from the need to secure votes, even protectionists may not be relevant to Trump because he would rather deal with China for personal benefit. He will return to a business realist. Adelson is reported to intend to donate at least $100 million to the Trump campaign. As such, it will be difficult for Trump to remain tough on China.

If the Democrats win the White House, Joe Biden will tilt toward the liberal-realists for moderate confrontation with China. At his core, Biden is a liberal internationalist. He will maintain harsh rhetoric on China for a period to not ignore the 66% of Americans who view China negatively. However, gradually, Biden will moderate the popular view on China to prevent it restraining him.

What does this mean for the Tsai administration? It should not expect the dominance of the pro-Taiwan attitude in the U.S. to prevail because ideologists do not have a solid basis in either the Trump or Biden camps. In addition, their anti-China stance does not warrant high priority. The Tsai administration must build close relationships with the strategic and liberal-realists.

Neither Trump nor Biden will reflect the strategic-realists during the election campaign. Insisting that the U.S. should deter China militarily to maintain its influence in Asia will not garner votes for either candidate in the swing states where veterans are reported to be unhappy about the prolonged wars in the Middle East. Similarly, neither camp will advocate the liberal-realists because emphasising the importance of working constructively with China will not appeal to those voters either. Trump has taught them that China is the cause of their job loss and the pandemic deaths in the U.S.

Yet regardless of the candidate that ultimately wins the election, the strategic-realists—embedded deeply in the Pentagon—will continue to push their goal to prevent China’s dominance in Asia. For this group, Taiwan is vital due to China’s proximity, as represented by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s words of ‘Taiwan as an unsinkable aircraft carrier.’ Similarly, the liberal-realists will continue to dominate academia and think tanks.

The Tsai administration needs both strategic and liberal-realists. Still, both present challenges. While supportive of Taiwan, the strategic-realists are preparing themselves for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, which may risk Taiwan’s security. Being conciliatory to China, liberal-realists will promote a peaceful resolution of the China-Taiwan dispute.

On the face of it, Pompeo’s congratulation of President Tsai’s inauguration should excite Taiwan. But when one digs deeper, the groups most beneficial to Taiwan are the strategic and liberal-realists in the U.S. For this reason, the election of President Biden is potentially more beneficial to her administration in the long run, despite his current moderate stance on Taiwan. If Trump wins the election, President Tsai has challenges ahead.

Fumiko Sasaki is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. She is the author of Nationalism, Political Realism and Democracy in Japan.

This article is part of special issue on the President Tsai’s second term in the office.

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