Natasha Kassam (Research Fellow, Diplomacy and Public Opinion Program, Lowy Institute).
“The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” read the now-infamous tweet by then President-elect Trump on 2 December 2016.
The phone call – thought to be the first communication between a Taiwanese and U.S. president-elect since 1979 – was met with optimism in liberal democratic Taiwan. In the days after the call, that buoyancy dissipated, as it became clear that President Trump’s unpredictability was going to be a liability for Taiwan’s already-fraught security.
The reality of the United States’ policy towards Taiwan since 1979 – when Washington disavowed Taipei in favour of Beijing - has been ‘strategic ambiguity’. The United States sells Taiwan arms, but does not provide security guarantees. It acknowledges China’s claim over Taiwan, but sails U.S. military vessels through the Taiwan Strait in defiance of China.
While China and Taiwan are the most important players in cross-straits tensions, the United States is the wildcard. Beijing and Taipei have relatively transparent ambitions. China has threatened to annex Taiwan since the People’s Republic was founded, unmoved by its years of independence and democratic transition in the 1990s.More recently, China has upped the ante by freezing official contact, poaching diplomatic partners, stepping up military threats, preventing Taiwan from attending international organisations and restricting Chinese tourists.
Beijing’s red line would be Taiwan declaring independence. Taiwan’s position is also well-known, if not more constrained by Beijing’s power. Taipei needs to defend its sovereignty, and manage the growth of an independent Taiwanese identity, and with it a younger generation of Taiwanese that have known nothing except democratic and de facto sovereign Taiwan.
By contrast, the United States does not have such clearly defined positions or even interests. The U.S. stance towards Taiwan is the known unknown. In part this is because of the institutionalised policy of ambiguity that President Trump inherited. But while most Taiwanese officials work on the assumption that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defence in the case of an invasion, no such guarantees have been publicly forthcoming from President Trump, or previous U.S. administrations.
The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress the year that Washington terminated diplomatic relations with Taipei, requires the United States to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capability. In 2019, the United States authorised major sales of M1 Abrams tanks and F-16 Viper jets to Taiwan. Taiwan is often criticised for purchasing inappropriate capabilities, but these sales serve a deterrent function. Taiwan is effectively signalling to China that it continues to extract political commitments from the United States.
In March 2020, President Trump signed the TAIPEI Act, to assist Taiwan in retaining its few remaining diplomatic partners and called on the United States to assist Taiwan with its participation in international organisations. The U.S. Congress has also passed the Taiwan Travel Act, followed by a number of high-level delegations from the U.S. Defense and State departments. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen made significant transit through U.S. territory in 2019, and the Vice President-elect William Lai visited Washington in 2020.
At surface-level, this may look like the highest level of U.S. support for Taiwan since 1979. Previous U.S. Presidents (Nixon, Carter and Reagan) cut deals with Beijing at Taipei’s expense, signing the first three U.S.-PRC communiques. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama avoided signing a fourth, but oversaw freezes in arms sales to Taiwan.
But this uptick in support for Taiwan is more likely a reflection of the moving centre of gravity for China policy in Washington. Rather than genuine support for Taiwan as a liberal democratic partner, Taiwan is at risk of becoming collateral damage in great power competition.
Increasing scepticism of China in Washington has drawn more attention to Taiwan’s plight. But treating Taiwan as a conduit to frustrate Beijing imperils Taiwan’s security. Already many in China’s party-state suspect that the United States intends to promote Taiwan independence, and this paranoia has only risen in recent years. The risk here is that U.S. policy encourages an overreaction from China, upsetting the cross-straits status quo or whatever remains of it, and then the United States abandons Taiwan to deal with the consequences.
And there is little to suggest this White House cares about Taiwan in the absence of China as a threat. If U.S. priorities can be identified via the tweets of President Trump – a fraught barometer at best - Taiwan barely rates a mention.
The Taiwanese public have watched President Trump describe Chairman Xi Jinping as a good friend – the same leader that threatens to annex Taiwan on a regular basis. They have seen President Trump take a wrecking ball to partners and allies that rely on security guarantees from the United States – criticising Germany’s Angela Merkel, United Kingdom’s former PM Theresa May and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, while showering praise upon strongmen leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. And it did not go unnoticed in Taiwan when Trump said Hong Kong legislation could be vetoed if it affected trade talks with China.
As with other longstanding U.S. partners, White House decisions have had unfortunate consequences for Taiwan. The United States withdrew from negotiations to form the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that Taiwan had wanted to join in order to reduce its economic reliance on China. Taiwan is subject to U.S. aluminium and steel tariffs, and was vulnerable to the U.S.-China trade war given the number of Taiwan-based companies that manufacture in China. The United States has reportedly pressured the world’s largest computer chipmaker, Taiwanese company TSMC, from selling to Chinese technology giant Huawei. Taiwan already struggles to retain local engineering talent in the face of substantial attempts to lure them to China by the Communist Party.
President Trump’s administration has arguably provided more tangible and symbolic support for Taiwan than any other since 1979. But the instinct to be hard on China is not necessarily the same as being pro-Taiwan. Relations between the United States and China are unravelling at an unforeseen pace. The risk is that Taiwan is a pawn on a greater chessboard as President Trump and Chairman Xi preside over a diplomatic fracture. And whether President Trump leaves office in months or years, the question as to what the United States would put on the line for a liberal democracy in East Asia remains unanswered.