It is easy to assume that rising tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China will benefit Taiwan. As everyone knows, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But this assumption reveals a superficial understanding of Taiwan’s role in the triangular relationship among Beijing, Washington, and Taipei. In fact, a different aphorism may capture Taiwan’s situation better: When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.
To avoid Taiwan becoming collateral damage in a US-China row, top US policy makers need to think through the implications of their actions. They also need to consider Taiwan’s interests and values rather than assuming that what they believe is good for the US is also good for Taiwan.
As tensions between Washington and Beijing have risen, officials in the Congress and the executive branch have taken a number of actions aimed at shoring up America’s support for Taiwan. Taiwan’s government welcomes these moves, but there are reasons to be cautious. The most worrisome actor in Washington is the White House, whose messaging on Taiwan policy has been confusing. No one really knows where Taiwan falls in Trump’s list of priorities, and at least some of the officials around him seem motivated not by Taiwan’s intrinsic value to the US, but by the possibility of using it to gain leverage over the PRC.
For decades, the US worked hard to maintain good relations with both Beijing and Taipei despite the two sides’ dispute as to whether Taiwan is (or should be) part of the PRC. Throughout that time Washington’s policy was that while the US has no preference regarding the ultimate resolution of the Taiwan Strait disagreement, it has a strong interest in peace and stability in the region. Thus, any outcome is acceptable, so long as it is achieved peacefully, without coercion, and with the consent of the people of Taiwan.
As the PRC economy developed and globalized, US-China ties deepened. But Beijing never stopped complaining about the ways in which Washington helped Taiwan remain politically separate from the PRC. The Taiwan issue – especially US arms sales to Taiwan – became a major sticking point in the relationship, causing some US observers to question whether Washington should downgrade its relations with Taiwan. Recommendations that the US disengage from Taiwan prompted a wave of responses aimed at reminding Americans why Taiwan matters to the US. Supporters of the existing policy approach stressed Taiwan’s value as an example of a developing country that successfully democratized its politics and liberalized its economy. Its political transformation proved that a historically-Chinese society can embrace democratic institutions and nurture a vibrant civil society. Abandoning Taiwan, they argued, would spell the end of the first culturally Chinese democracy and extinguish a beacon of liberalism.
Opponents of the “abandon Taiwan” school also emphasized Taiwan’s importance in demonstrating America’s commitment to defending friends and partners. Taiwan is not a treaty ally – the US does not even recognize it as a state – but America’s formal allies view Washington’s willingness to stand up for Taipei as an indicator of its commitment to protecting the post-World War II global security architecture. Support for Taiwan also shows nations around the world that the United States remains determined to defend and promote freedom, democracy, and market economics around the world.
For Taiwan, this logic is reassuring. In the early years of the post-Cold War era, Taiwan’s leaders deftly transferred Taiwan’s role in US foreign policy from anti-Communist bulwark to democratic standard-bearer. In doing so, they reconstituted Taiwan’s rationale for resisting the PRC’s efforts to absorb the island in a way that gave it enduring appeal to American leaders and citizens. It was in this context that President Bill Clinton asserted that the US would accept a resolution of the cross-strait dispute only if it had the assent of Taiwan’s people.
Democratic Taiwan has been careful not to overstep its boundaries in ways that might complicate Washington’s efforts to balance support for Taiwan with engaging China. While many Taiwanese dream of becoming a fully independent state, their leaders have been careful to avoid strong statements that could provoke the PRC. When President Chen Shui-bian veered too close to that guardrail in 2003, President George W. Bush rebuked him, and Taiwan’s voters rejected his approach. Taipei has never pressed Washington to choose between good relations with the PRC and support for Taiwan.
A US Taiwan policy based on Taiwan’s domestic virtues – liberal democracy and free market economics – serves both Taiwan and the US. It allows the US to encourage and support Taiwan within the limits of America’s long-standing policy framework, and it allows both parties to cultivate good relations with Beijing. But not all advocates of better relations with Taiwan prioritize its virtues. For some, supporting Taiwan has a very different motivation – one that does not align nearly so well with Taiwan’s own interests.
For decades, Beijing’s leaders have insisted that America’s real motivation in supporting Taiwan is not to encourage democracy, but to frustrate China’s rise. Containment, they argue is the real goal of US policy toward China. Until recently, US policy makers rejected this contention. As President Obama put it in 2011: “We welcome China’s rise. I absolutely believe that China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and it’s good for America.” After Trump took office, however, the tone of US China policy changed – and Washington’s Taiwan policy changed along with it.
Exactly how Taiwan policy has changed is hard to pin down, because the Trump White House lacks a coherent line on this issue. Trump’s famous phone call with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 was widely interpreted as evidence that Trump planned to upgrade relations with Taiwan, but he reversed himself under PRC pressure, promising China’s leader Xi Jinping that he would not speak to Tsai again without consulting Xi.
A few days after the phone call with Tsai, Trump managed to reassure and undermine Taiwan in a single sentence, telling Fox News, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” In other words, he suggested that the US might abandon the policy framework that restricts US interactions with Taiwan (and enables engagement with China), but he also implied that Taiwan policy could become a bargaining chip in US-China relations. He walked back the first of those ideas a few days later, again under Chinese pressure, but he has never put to rest the possibility that Taiwan could find itself traded away in exchange for concessions from Beijing.
Even without the confusing messages from Trump himself, it is hard to say whether US Taiwan policy has changed significantly under the new administration. In many ways, the current administration resembles previous ones. Officials, including the vice president, have made statements supporting Taiwan. Congress has passed Taiwan-friendly legislation, including the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act—which instructed the Department of Defense to help Taiwan improve its defensive “efficiency, effectiveness, readiness, and resilience”—the Taiwan Travel Act, and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act. Yet another bill, the Taiwan Assurance Act, has passed the House and is awaiting Senate consideration.
On the military front, the US has taken some symbolic actions, such as approving more frequent naval transits through the Taiwan Strait. But moving from symbolic to concrete actions has proven difficult. The Trump administration seemed poised to complete an important arms sale to Taiwan, but then put the brakes on, reportedly to avoid interfering with trade talks with Beijing.
The White House’s decision to prioritize an illusory trade deal with China over Taiwan’s security is revealing, but it is not the whole story. Even as Trump himself has suggested he might “play the Taiwan card” to secure concessions from Beijing on other issues, others in his administration seem determined to play the Taiwan card in an entirely different way, contributing to suspicions that the motivation underlying US Taiwan policy may be changing.
Before becoming national security advisor, John Bolton laid out his views on Taiwan policy in a January 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed. He wrote that it was “high time to revisit the ‘one-China policy,’” and he linked closer US-Taiwan ties – especially military cooperation – with other strategic goals targeting China: “Guaranteeing freedom of the seas, deterring military adventurism, and preventing unilateral territorial annexations are core American interests in East and Southeast Asia.” Bolton made it clear that he views Taiwan as a weapon to use to frustrate Beijing’s ambitions. In other words, as a tool of containment. In March of 2018 Bolton joined the White House staff as Trump’s top national security official.
Not all US officials endorse this approach. In November 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed claims that more robust ties with Taiwan reflected a shift toward containment: “Regarding our strong ties with a democratic Taiwan, I reiterated the U.S. policy has not changed and that we are concerned about China’s increasing efforts to coerce others, constraining Taiwan’s international space … The United States is not pursuing a Cold War or containment policy with China.”
Despite the administration’s mixed messages, Brookings Institution Taiwan expert Richard Bush sees an overall trend toward using Taiwan as a tool in an increasingly hawkish China policy. In a speech at Indiana University in April, Dr. Bush said, “On the one hand, national security officials, based on their judgment that China is a revisionist power that wishes to diminish U.S. influence in East Asia, wish to broaden and deepen the security relationship with Taiwan. They take these steps at least to enhance Taiwan’s deterrent against China, and possibly to make it a link in a chain of containment against the PRC.”
As for the PRC, experts there view Bolton’s ascendance as proof that the US wants to use Taiwan to contain China. As Wang Yong, director of the Center for International Political Economy at Peking University, put it, “With Trump and his conservative team in power, the containment faction has been moving from the fringe to the central position. Under Trump’s rule, the situation is becoming more and more dangerous. The Republican Party’s most conservative, most nationalist and most anti-China members and factions have been gathering closer and closer to Trump, and so under Trump’s rule the conflict between China and the U.S. is probably going to continue rising.”
If, as Wang and many others expect, the conflict between China and the US intensifies, Taiwan is certain to suffer, especially given the Trump White House’s policy incoherence. As University of South California political scientist Dan Lynch wrote Foreign Affairs in March 2018, “While there would probably be jubilation in Taiwan if Trump were to radically upgrade U.S. relations with the island nation, it would be wiser for Tsai to resist the temptation to accept such a change. She should recognize that doing so would turn Taiwan into a pawn in Washington’s struggle with Beijing. The Trump administration is too unfocused and chaotic to be a reliable partner, and Trump’s nativist political base would likely reject the United States going to war on Taiwan’s behalf.”
The G-20 meeting in Osaka last month raised hopes that the US and China might be able to arrest the negative slide in their relationship. That would be good news for Taiwan, but Trump’s statements also contained worrying elements. He referred to the US and China as “strategic partners,” a phrase that US officials have avoided in the past; Trump’s own National Security Strategy refers to China as a “strategic competitor.” It’s possible he meant nothing by the remark, but his imprecise language poses a particular threat to Taiwan, whose relationship with the US rests on a foundation of statements and commitments that cannot be altered willy-nilly. In short, while there are data points that can be mustered in support of the idea that Taiwan is better off under the Trump administration, such a conclusion misreads the situation. But many Taiwanese hear only the messages they want to hear; they don’t understand why their leaders don’t act more forcefully to take advantage of the “opportunity” Trump is offering. The pattern of mix messaging and policy confusion thus puts pressure on precisely those leaders the US must rely on to stabilize Taiwan’s own policies.
There is one policy area in which the Trump White House has been consistent: it has showed no regard for Taiwan’s economic interests. One of Trump’s first acts in office was to withdraw the US from the Transpacific Partnership (TPP). Under President Obama, TPP was touted as a rare opportunity to reverse Taiwan’s growing economic marginalization and political isolation. Without TPP, the US has little to offer Taiwan on this front, although the State Department has worked hard to strengthen the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), a joint US-Taiwan vehicle for highlighting Taiwan’s strengths and helping other nations develop and implement solutions to difficult problems.
In addition to pulling the TPP rug out from under Taiwan’s feet, Trump dragged the island into his trade wars. The administration refused to exempt Taiwan from its steel and aluminum tariffs, and its tariffs on Chinese exports offers no tariff relief to the thousands of Taiwanese companies whose supply chains end in mainland China, even though most of them rely on components made in Taiwan. Some of those firms are transferring production to Taiwan, but reshoring is expensive, and the cost structure that pushed companies to leave has not changed, making their profitability uncertain. The Taiwan stock market shows the extent of the damage, with high volatility and sagging investor confidence.
Who could have imagined, when Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong set the terms for US-PRC relations in 1972, that 47 years later Taiwan would be a self-governing liberal democracy? All three parties to the triangular relationship have evolved over the decades, and the relationships among them have been transformed multiple times. Today we find ourselves on the threshold of a new era, one that some observers are calling a new Cold War between the US and China. There are many reasons to pause and reflect—is this the future we want? As we consider this question, we should make no mistake: When relations between the US and the PRC go wrong, Taiwan is the first to feel the heat.