The Last Trump: Or, Taiwan as a Potential Pawn on a New Chess Board

Written by Ian Inkster.

Image credit: 02.14 總統春節慰勉陸軍機步1營1連 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

As Joseph Cummings has summarised recently for Redaction Politics, ‘experts believe that Mr Biden’s policy will fall short of provocation of mainland China and Mr Trump’s open empowerment of Taiwanese militarisation,’ and there is little reason yet to discount that view. The fact that the US has approved recent arms purchase deals with Taiwan may mean no real change in the long history of less-than-best military techniques being sold off to Taiwan as part of the old cold-war alliance.

As a final twist in the sorry tale of Donald Trump’s foreign policy – if such it could ever be named – the US passed the Taiwan Assurance Act on December 27. This is an instrument that, at least in rhetoric, announces a closing of the gap between Taiwan and the USA and a broadening of mainland China’s provocation. Indeed, it is a typical end-game trump, but the cards on the table were less easy to identify than the motivations of an American regime that was always full of mischief. Within this context, Japan’s deputy defence minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, called the safety of Taiwan a “red line,” that is, the Taiwan issue has a line drawn under it, somehow marked by Japan. This remains unclear. Historically, the Japanese have not been of any special assistance to Taiwan in its various status struggles, including the period of Nakayama’s influence. They do not recognise any Taiwanese sovereignty and have just now allied with China in the new world order organisation, the possibly crucial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (out of ASEAN), from which Taiwan is excluded.

From the Chinese viewpoint, it would be startling if they worry too much about Japanese critique on this issue, as the two systems are in reality becoming closer and Taiwan remains relatively small fish in their waters. For Japan, imports from China are huge, around 2.5 times those from the US. True, the US matches China as a receiver of Japanese exports. Japan is an unarmed nation by Treaty, so at best Japan will be part of a chorus amongst the comity of nations. As a literal ‘rubric,’ the red line has no particular weight – I would judge – in China. The truth is that in the long-term China and Japan are partners at the developmental nodes of a continually growing East Asian system in which economics dominates. Taiwan is an important part of that regional system. Global rhetoric is another thing.

As to how the US will henceforth involve Taiwan in regularising relations with China, several elements are involved. Two spring to mind as quite immediate; how the Biden administration emerges, and how the new world trading order represented by RCEP and other developments impacts upon China’s growing soft power strategy.

We require a digression on the latter if only to identify my own biases – despite the stupidity of Trumpism and the hyper-critical sounds off-stage of Europe, the emergence of the Chinese economic system and its expansion into Europe, US, Africa and Asia has been a spectacular success unmatched in world history since records were kept. The industrial transformations of the UK and Europe since the 18th century, the late 19th century expansions of the US and Japan, the rise of the European-late-industrialisers such as Germany and Italy (at the time these were brand new nations) were all associated with and to a large extent dependent on global subjugation along almost all its arcs. Very few large, settled areas escaped either economic transformation usually for the worse (until 1971) or colonialism and cultural disarray. Greenwich Meantime became a global weapon, as did all ingenious western technologies – including its gunboats.

In comparison, the rise of smaller East Asia and now giant China has been incomparably peaceful, held at bay not by US arms but by the nature of things – in a highly sophisticated global system in which much is to be gained, peaceful coexistence pays off for large newcomers – as India and perhaps Brazil shall learn. What surprises is the mildness of China – e.g., the settlement between UK, China and Hong Kong at the end of a long Treaty period in which the UK had not offered independence or true democracy to this small island but had merely ruled it as a (war)-captured colony. It is not my expert area, but surely China’s decision at that time to take Hong Kong back as an SEZ or unique development region would have been internationally acceptable in legal terms, yet China conceded far more than that. I have stressed many times that Hong Kong and Taiwan are not parallel cases. In essence, China has eschewed armed aggression as a major instrument and hesitatingly moved from isolationism toward soft/commercial power expansion. I hope that continues for the rest of my lifetime.

So – even within a crazy global psyche of post-covidity – I cannot see how the minor support offered in the dying moments of Trump in the form of the Taiwan Assurance Act makes much underlying difference to these imminent and past underlying forces. Compared to the West, China is fairly mild, the US is grim, and Biden has yet to be tested. The Assurance Treaty has little content but advantages US arms sales to Taiwan. It encourages the Taiwanese to move to a rather vague notion of ‘asymmetric warfare,’ which might be better thought of as an ‘asymmetric military and naval strategy.’ Furthermore, as most followers of Taiwan Insight will know, Taiwan has been moving from securing total military capabilities across land, sea and water in favour of high-tech naval strategies, protection of nearby waters etc — focus on the literal littoral as it were — along with more attention to information and high-tech info-interventions. All of this fits the Trumpian plan of more arms sales. In the past, I have noted that the USA has rarely offered military equipment of the highest-or-very-latest tech to Taiwan.

I have no special insights into Biden and his future strategy. Although he has just delivered an inaugural that most certainly focussed upon internal conflict resolution rather than innovative changes in foreign policy, I am not impressed to date. He would do best to attempt to penetrate the East Asian fast post-covid recovery as positively and smoothly as possible if there are gains to be made – I have argued elsewhere that the US is a relatively minor player in these probable future trade and investment alignments, though US tech and soft-power elements will remain for many a year. But it is quite feasible that the new regime may continue in thuggish Trumpian vein but use inducements in smaller East Asia to divide wedges between Japan and China or China and Europe, who knows. Rhetoric wins votes, but votes do not ensure real power at a global level, where movements and instruments of trade, investment, technology, and expertise are of the essence and are increasingly served through micro-electronic and global channels difficult to control or monitor.

Of course, a goodly portion of any reality check lies in the likely patterns in world trade during the next year or so. Recovery from COVID 19 does matter, but so too do the recent foreign trade patterns amongst the major economies. These expose the underlying forces of the many thousands of economic players in the three major nations here concerned, and they eschew reliance on the overlying and often duplicitous post-diplomacy of a few dozen political power mongers!

Generally, , the world’s nations import significantly more from China than from the USA, but they export significantly more to the USA than they do to China. This leaves China with a bigger trading sector than the USA, and a surplus on its trade account rather than a stubborn negative imbalance. But more importantly, these totals result from contrasting growth trajectories – the US economy growing in real GDP terms at around 2.2% during 2012-17, China at around 7.1% in the same period. If Biden should continue the US attempt to increase trade but reduce imports, there is not much here for a dynamic Taiwanese economy. Supposing China continues growth stimulation through government and private investments through debt funding while moving more towards exploiting hinterland resources as prices and rents escalate along its coastal regions and makes more intelligent forays into soft-powering. In that case, it remains the hanger for the Taiwan coat. There will generally be a comity of fast-recovery, low-covid nations. As I have often emphasised, through all disturbances and in the absence of any obvious coercion, Taiwan is placed far closer to China than to the USA – trade with China makes up 51% of Taiwanese trade activity (exports plus imports), trade with the USA 24%. In such very crude terms, together Japan and Hong Kong are of far greater significance than is the USA. This says little of the potential significance of high-tech trading with the USA, nevertheless in broad terms it is as it is, and there is little evidence of any great reversal in the offing.

None of which is to say that commerce conquers all. However, it does say much of Taiwan’s best interests in the shorter-term, and perhaps even more of the attitudes and relations between very significant Taiwanese commercial and investment interests that together make most of the decisions for a highly successful economy. An economy that is only of modest size compared to these two giants – in global terms, Taiwan ranks 22 amongst the 185 economies of over 1 million people or GDPs of over $3bn. This status has been achieved despite geopolitical circumstances that are almost unimaginable for most wealthy nations, and that will not be unduly disturbed or redefined by the Trumpian final wave of the Taiwan Assurance Treaty.

Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist at SOAS, University of London, and a Senior Fellow in the Taiwan Studies Programme and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK, who has taught and researched at universities in Britain, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. Author of 13 books on global dynamics and history, with particular focus on industrial and technological development, and the editor of History of Technology since 2000. Forthcoming books are Distraction Capitalism: The World Since 1971, and Invasive Technology and Indigenous Frontiers. Case Studies of Accelerated Change in History with David Pretel. Contact: @inksterian

This article was published as part of a special issue on Post-Covid Economy.


  1. “China has eschewed armed aggression as a major instrument” for the time being because aggression would stall “the emergence of the Chinese economic system”. Teng learned from the dismal war with Vietnam that a strong economy is the foundation of an effective military force. So he opened China for foreign investment and technology. Taiwanese businesses jumped at this opportunity and Western leaders supported China’s integration into the global economy.

    His successors learned in 1989 that the use of military force disrupts economic development because it instigates sanctions. Thus “the mildness of China” is not really surprising when we consider that China depended on investment and technology transfer from the West. However, that the West got lulled into being complacent by China’s apparent mildness in spite of continued authoritarian rule by the CCP is surprising in hindsight.

    In recent years the situation changed. On the one hand, China got far less dependent on Western technology and investment but more dependent on globally sourced raw materials. And on the other hand, its rising power alerted the West into a more antagonistic stance towards China. Those changes together make it paramount for China to create instruments for protecting its global interests.

    Unfortunately, China’s current leader addresses those challenges in a way very similar to what happened in Germany 90 years ago.

    1. A narrative about undoing past humiliation suffered at the hands of hostile powers stirs nationalism and hostilities at contested borders.
    2. The leader’s bellicose rhetoric in front of the military urges readiness for war.
    3. The aggressive upgrade of military capabilities prepares for war.
    4. The incarceration of a demonised religious minority in camps creates fear of a malicious and shady power that rallies the Han majority around the leader.
    5. Power is concentrated in the hands of a supreme leader.
    6. Confrontational stances in foreign relations increase.

    There is nothing “mild” about China any more.

    Indeed, “Taiwan is placed far closer to China than to the USA”. Let’s hope that it does not share a fate similar to that of Austria or Czechoslovakia in 1938, or even worse, to that of Poland in 1939.


  2. Professor Inkster is clearly wrong on a number of points in this article:

    1. It is simply inaccurate to portray the Taiwan Assurance Act, passed in December 2020, as a “typical end-game trump” or a “Trumpian plan of more arms sales.” The Act was not an initiative by the Trump administration, but a very bi-partisan effort initiated by the US Congress to be more supportive of Taiwan in the face of an aggressive and belligerent PRC, and passed by an overwhelming bi-partisan majority in both House and Senate.

    2. Taiwan’s move to develop “asymmetric” defense capabilities is not a “Trumpian plan of more arms sales” but is a long-term strategy that was already promoted by the United States during the Obama administration, and thus a very bi-partisan effort supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.

    For sure, Trump’s foreign policy has been chaotic and abrasive at best, but the Taiwan Assurance Act and US “asymmetric” arms sales to Taiwan in response to China’s aggressive posture were clearly bipartisan initiatives in the US Congress, and are now continued under the Biden administration.

    To portray these initiatives as “Trumpian” is a serious distortion and does not do justice to the longtime bipartisan nature of, and support for, these initiatives.


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