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Taiwan and the Trump Administration: Meaningful Engagement or Partisan Opportunism?

18 Aug 2021
By Brett Jarvis
A US Air Force plane carrying a US Senate delegation arrives in Taiwan. Source: Wang Yu Ching/Office of the President of Taiwan

The Trump administration was oft praised for its increased engagement with Taiwan. Looking back, we should ask whether this translated to meaningful engagement or was little more than an opportunistic means of criticising the administration’s perceived opponents.

The topic of Taiwan has often been a precarious one in international relations. Tension was brought to the fore in 2016, when the newly elected President Donald Trump took a call from Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-Wen. This caused a stir among senior US diplomats as it went against the long standing One China Policy, in which the US recognised the People’s Republic as the only legitimate government. In other circles, the Trump administration was beginning to receive compliments and praise for its support of Taiwan. A new chapter was being written, giving hope to Taiwan that America would be there in its hour of need. Now that the dust has settled on the Trump administration, it has become apparent is that the Trump administration’s interest in Taiwan had little to do with Taiwan itself. Taiwan was instead used as means of signalling to domestic and international audiences the administrations attitude toward mainland China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The CCP has long considered its sovereignty of the utmost importance in its national psyche. The protection of this sovereignty is the bar to which the success China and its governments are measured. The humiliation that followed the territorial losses in the 19th and early 20th centuries served to inspire revolutionaries through different stages of Chinese history. This includes the CCP, whose immediate task upon assuming power was to reclaim these territories, especially from foreign actors.

Taiwan is the last of these territories that has yet to be reunified. President Xi Jinping has vowed to bring Taiwan under CCP control by 2050. He reaffirmed this commitment in the CCP’s recent centenary celebration. This is only the latest in a decades-long campaign of unwavering commitment to reunification with Taiwan. By defending its territorial claims abroad, the CCP can legitimatise itself as a strong government to the Chinese people. It has backed these claims up with increased military presence in the Taiwan Strait. However, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, has stated that the Taiwanese would fight to the end in the case of military intervention from Beijing. With Beijing severely outclassing Taiwan in its military capabilities, this could be a prophetic statement without intervention from other countries.

The US has long been a quiet supporter of Taiwan, though it broke formal diplomatic ties in the 1970s. During the Trump administration, the status quo was being re-written. Trump himself has long relied on xenophobic anti-China rhetoric, even before running for the presidency. He accused previous administrations of allowing China to destroy the US economy through criminal means. As this was happening, the CCP was also heightening its Taiwan aspirations. CCP military presences from in the air and sea around the island only increased during Trump’s presidency.

China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, as well as the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, saw all eyes focused on the CCP. During this time, the Trump administration ramped up its rhetoric on China and Taiwan. Leading the Trump administration’s stance on Taiwan was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose attitude toward CCP was clear: he saw the CCP as corrupt, flouting the rule of law, and a threat to Western democracies. This led to Pompeo throwing his support behind the democratic island of Taiwan, promoting an increase in trade as a means of fostering closer ties. This was especially true in the field of military and arms spending. He also publicly supported Taiwan joining international organisations such as the WTO. In the AUSMIN 2020 joint statement, Pompeo highlighted the “resolve to support Taiwan” amongst recent tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

What became apparent to Taiwan watchers, however, was that Pompeo’s support, and by extension the administration’s support, was opportunistic in nature. When Pompeo announced pro-Taiwan measures, it was done so in retaliation against Beijing. For example, in January 2021, after 50 Hong Kong activists were arrested, Pompeo announced that he would send the US ambassador to the United Nations to Taiwan, an insult to Beijing which considers the island a renegade province. Pompeo further remarked how Taiwan was an example of what a “free China could achieve.” In this sense, Taiwan’s value was that its political system contrasted to Beijing’s. This rhetoric not only allowed him to delegitimise the CCP in the eyes of Americans and the international community, but also further his claims of China as a threat to the US.

Meanwhile, Trump’s support for Taiwan was used to amplify his strength on China. He campaigned on his ability to stand up to the CCP, which he claimed had manipulated the American economy for its own benefit. To this end, Trump was willing use Taiwan to serve his personal agenda of achieving electoral victory. The insinuation that Joe Biden would abandon the island was used to foster a perception of Democrats’ weakness on China. He stated that his support for the One China policy was contingent on securing better trade deals. Support for Taiwan seemingly had little to do Taiwan itself, and was little more than a political and partisan tool, which only seemed to ramp up as the 2020 election approach.

Under the old guard of the KMT, reunification seemed a plausible outcome. This idea was challenged by the 2014 Sunflower protests. The young Taiwanese that supported the movement went on to give the DPP victory in the 2016 (and 2020) elections. With the crackdown on Hong Kong, any appetite in Taiwan for a similar one country, two systems model was gone. Meanwhile, Taiwan is slowly losing formal diplomatic relations due to Beijing’s pressure to recognise the CCP. Trump and Pompeo’s declarations of support for Taiwan on Twitter, often retweeted by Tsai and other Taiwanese officials, fostered support amongst young Taiwanese for the Trump administration, with his perceived strength in standing up to China the most important issue for the Taiwanese. The unfortunate reality was that Taiwan would have been the one to face any ramifications from US actions.

Taiwan relies on the United States, expecting meaningful engagement, but in the United States, Taiwan became a means of signalling the United States’ position on China. The CCP’s sensitivity around Taiwan means that any action from the United States will be met with condemnation and scorn on the mainland. To reduce the tension built in response to Trump’s hard-on-China policies, the Biden administration needs to aim for long term plans based on more personal engagement between the two countries. Trade and diplomatic exchanges should continue to remain an important part of the process but should go beyond military exchanges. Cultural and education exchanges, for example, can help foster meaningful engagement. It also helps to separate the United States’ Taiwan policy from being just an amendment on its China policy. The new administration has already toned down the rhetoric from the previous administration, stressing the humanitarian side of Taiwan engagement without tying those announcements to a larger anti-China campaign. This is a good starting point, but it has yet to be seen whether the Biden administration will follow through.

Brett Jarvis has recently completed an honours degree in History and Chinese Language at Curtin University, focusing on Chinese history, Chinese nationalism and Chinese diaspora in the late 19th and early 20th century. His dissertation explored the 1911 Revolution and how it fermented nationalism amongst Chinese in Australia. He is currently interested in Taiwan’s history and the position it occupies in international diplomacy.  

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.