The United States under Donald Trump: How has the US President affected US policy towards Taiwan?
By Jan Kliem, Senior Programme Officer and Researcher at the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG).[A]
The International Relations (IR) of Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC) are almost always to be understood as part of a triangle that involves both the United States (US) as well as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Most analyses of IR issues concerning Taiwan that claim to be complete, need to take into account this triangulation, or have to focus on two or less sides and concede that they only look at one part of a greater subject matter. A large number of studies on Taiwan fall into the latter category, for this breaks down a very complex issue into more manageable parts and therefore allows deeper analysis despite limited space or resources to create a more holistic study. This paper also falls into that category, as it focuses mainly on the US side and its policy towards Taiwan, only occasionally delving into actions or reactions from either of the other two sides.
Each side has its very own, distinct narratives on the international relations of Taiwan, ranging from the status of the “political entity”, de facto or de jure, to identity and domestic politics, to polity and history. Both the PRC and the US have been rather consistent in their policies towards Taiwan since the late 1970s. Taiwan itself, now a thriving democracy, has evolved and altered its international relations policies occasionally, owing to domestic politics and different predisposition of leaders it has elected since the 1990s. At the same time, its actual or possible impact on the triangle is generally speaking, with the exception of making an outright move for independence, less destabilising than what the other two sides could unleash if they were to act in grave violation of current arrangements.
The election of Donald Trump as US President in November 2016 was perceived by the majority of observers as a huge shock and all bets were off as to what it would mean for the future of US foreign policy and therefore, the future of the international system as we know it. The issue of Taiwan was no exception and based on an aggressive and outspoken Republican platform on the matter, which Trump had embraced, as well as his actions and words before and after the elections, it looked like the continuity of US policy towards Taiwan that had been in place since the 1970s, could have come to an end.
The study below shows that while overall, this feeling has not materialised, some important shifts are taking place. The Taiwan issue in US policy is an example of the greater trend that is developing in Donald Trump’s foreign policy. He is not afraid of bold moves and likes to be seen as in charge, he is looking to score short-term wins or create leverage, and lacks a broader, underlying and systematic strategy that guides his single actions and makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Resulting uncertainty is problematic for US allies, including Taiwan, and reduces the likelihood of successful foreign policy. In order to make foreign policy great again, uncertainty and turnarounds have to end.
US – Taiwan – PRC Relations: The basics
Taiwan’s ambiguous status somewhere between a (de-facto) sovereign nation state and a “province of the People’s Republic of China” as well as the three different narratives on Taiwan from a US, PRC and ROC perspective, are in the first place a consequence of two wars: The Chinese Civil War and the Korean War.
Firstly, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese mainland in 1949 and the establishment of the Kuomintang (KMT) under Chiang Kai-sheck’s leadership on the island of Taiwan were a consequence of the civil war in China between the nationalist government of the Republic of China- the KMT under the leadership of Chiang – and the communist forces, under Mao Zedong. Secondly, the Korean War in 1950 directly led to the involvement of the US in PRC-Taiwan relations in an apparent effort to contain communism. It was for that reason that US President Truman deployed the United States 7th fleet to Asia and had it sail between the communist forces on the Chinese mainland and Chiang’s nationalists in Taiwan so that it no longer seemed possible for the PRC to take Taiwan by force.
Fundamental parts of today’s status-quo in which the US guaranteed no war would occur between the two sides in the Taiwan strait were established.
The next highly consequential events occurred in the 1970s, when a new era of US policy towards the PRC and Taiwan developed and official recognition by the US of the Chinese government was moved from the one sitting in Taipei to the one ruling from Beijing. The new principle relationship was fundamentally based on the framework of the “One-China Policy”, which itself has its very foundations in the first US-PRC joint communiqué, the “Shanghai Communiqué” of 1972. In a nutshell, the US one-China policy acknowledges that it is maintained that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, but, crucially, the US it does not subscribe to this assumption.
Pressured into balancing the rise of the Soviet Union in Asia, the 1972 and a subsequent communiqué looked like the beginning of the end of the US policy of balancing out the asymmetries in the military capabilities on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, until, in 1979, the Carter administration signed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) into law which was followed by a third communiqué and the “six assurances” in 1982 under the Reagan administration.
The TRA addresses crucial US policy questions, e.g. US policy (1) to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan and to establish the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which is to a large extent an embassy in all but name and hence, of vital importance; (2) to continue the sale of arms of defensive character to Taiwan; (3) to maintain the capacity of the US to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan; and (4) to oppose any non-peaceful effort to resolve the Taiwan question, including boycotts and embargoes, and declare those efforts a grave concern to the US.
It, in essence, serves as a strong commitment of the US to the future of Taiwan by regulating the maintenance of unofficial ties and stating US interest in the peacefulness of cross-strait relations, while backing-up its pledges with concrete actions such as the continued sale of defensive arms and officially tying the prevention of use of force against Taiwan to its interests. Whilst it does not go as far as requiring the US to defend Taiwan or to sell arms to it in a legal sense, it struck the balance right so that it would not be vetoed by the White House and still showed enough teeth to deter the PRC from coercive action regarding unification.
With regards to Taiwan, the three communiqués, the TRA and the six assurances built the foundation of US-PRC relations today. Today’s US one-china policy is informed by these foundations and has therefore developed from its initial use in its particular reference to Taiwan. The PRC has never renounced the possibility of using force against Taiwan, whereas the US has always maintained that it has an interest in a peaceful solution to cross-strait issues. The TRA and the six assurances in particular at least imply that the US would defend Taiwan in case of military action against it by the PRC. But the US does not support Taiwanese independence. As far as official US policy is concerned, the issue over Taiwan’s status remains unsettled.
A delicate policy easily upset. But by whom?
Many key tenets of the US-PRC policy towards Taiwan are not binding commitments and need to be evaluated and re-evaluated constantly and carefully. Small changes, all be it just in the use of certain words or changing the discourse in one way or another, can have very real effect. Given the complexity of the issue and its potential to cause severe damage to arguably the most important inter-state relationship today, it is vital to remain fully deliberate and cautious in this foreign policy field. This is true for Taipei and for Beijing but is particularly true for the US, where, at least in theory, a significant policy change with great consequence could happen quicker than in the other cases.
Arguably, many hawkish observers fear that the most likely upset in the triangular relation between the US, PRC, and Taiwan will come in form of military invasion of Taiwan by the PRC. Intense military build-up, with special regards to the PLA Navy and forces relevant to an attack on Taiwan, as well as the existence of invasion plans lead many to believe that an invasion is indeed at least relatively immanent.
While it is not the objective of this article to fully elaborate on this notion, for or against, the argument that it is in fact the US that could cause the greatest immediate shift in the short term reflects the constitutional realities that a new administration in the US has considerable leeway in foreign policy. It furthermore reflects that, as has been discussed above, the overall one-China policy is a rather fragile policy statute which exists because of carefully measured diplomatic efforts that evolved over time. Its boundaries are more fluid than those of strictly legal arrangements, such as a mutual defence treaty. Despite a strong congressional influence, any US administration has significant capacity to upset the framework that US-PRC relations are built upon. The early days of then President-elect and current President Trump were a stark reminder of this with regards to Taiwan, as explored below.
Beijing’s foreign policy usually operates under extensive long-term planning and with power consolidated in the hands of President Xi, as well as the mechanics of an authoritarian government that warrant for top-down planning and few upsets from within the system, it seems somewhat unlikely that China would right now risk a major international relations upset over Taiwan. The latest indication at the congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October, that the (re)-unification of Taiwan and mainland China is a prerequisite to the great rejuvenation of China, raised alarm bells. But it was also associated with a 2049 timeframe – the centennial anniversary of the PRC. This is not an invitation to ignore Chinese military posturing and to kick the can down the road, but it indicates the likelihood of other scenarios than an immediate invasion and therefore, more time to react and less chance to over-react. The PRC is furthermore engaged in a huge effort of military reform. The reform encompasses joint military command structures, personnel in some cases, as well as re-assessing and levelling the power balance among the different branches of the armed forces. Due to the new set of challenges and the increasing focus on the waters off the PRC coastline and beyond, the PLA Navy is challenging the historic dominance of the army, which is not without friction even for a strong leader such as Xi Jinping. In other words, despite military posturing and drills conducted around Taiwan invasion scenarios, it is conceivable that at least in the very near future, the PRC simply is not ready to launch an invasion at an acceptable level of fatalities on its own side, and remains preoccupied with an array of other challenges.
As far as Taiwan is concerned, although being the “object” of the conundrum, it arguably has the least power to bring about significant change to the situation. Even with the DPP in power, a party with an independence clause in its statutes, there are few indications that Taiwan would pursue this under its current leadership and Beijing knows as much. President Tsai Ing-wen has not fully endorsed the 1992 consensus but went as close to it as possible without actually uttering the words. She repeatedly indicated that while she does not want a simple continuation of KMT policy on the issue, she is not willing to fully confront Beijing either and would like to keep operating on the basis of over twenty years of relatively reasonable cross-strait relations. She has furthermore pledged to act in line with the Taiwan constitution, avoiding sentiments that were entertained by the only other DPP president of Taiwan in the 2000s, Chen Shui-bian. President Chen had pledged to work for a new constitution, which was received badly in by Beijing, for the inherent association between a new constitution and a new, independent state. President Tsai has repeatedly stressed that her administration is committed to the status-quo, i.e. not independence, nor unification. As for independence, article 4 of the constitution states that:
“The territory of the Republic of China within its existing national boundaries shall not be altered except by a resolution of the National Assembly.”
The territory referred to here is of course that of 1947, so decidedly different from what constitutes Taiwan today and therefore, acting in line with the constitution, largely means acting in line with at least a version of one-China. Conversely, authorities in Taiwan have increased pro-independence activities on the island recently, especially the outspoken high-profile advocacy for independence by Taiwan’s Premier Lai Ching-te. As of the time of writing this piece, it is too early to tell where this discussion is going in terms of endorsement or rejection by the Taiwanese President for instance, but it is certainly a significant development which will not be left unanswered by the PRC.
The US under Donald Trump
Taiwan and the Trump administration
With the general background provided above, this following section will look at the new US administration under President Trump and its US-China policy with regards to Taiwan.
Much ink has been spilled trying to figure out what exactly the new US administration’s policies are. To be sure, previous Presidents have taken some time to establish their “major” foreign policies and after all, it has only been a year since Donald Trump was sworn in. President Obama, who had a relatively smooth first foreign policy year in office, has only announced the pivot to Asia in 2011.
President Trump, in fact, has been quite active in foreign policy terms, but be it on Asia, the Middle East, climate, trade or any other matter, clear and consistent policy planning has in many cases yet to emerge and vacant White House positions to be filled. America First Foreign Policy or the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy are vague concepts and have yet to be filled with clearly structured, and crucially, prioritised content. On some issues, the administration has been rather conventional, the troop surge in Afghanistan for instance, or the ongoing cooperation with NATO and other major allies, but major exceptions are the signals sent with regards to the Paris Climate Agreement, TPP or the Iran Nuclear deal. Overall, policies have been quite erratic and President Trump has displayed that he is prone to changing his mind. This is of course particularly striking when Trump’s election campaign is taken into consideration.
A whole different matter is the process of how some US foreign policy is currently conducted. President Trump’s twitter usage is unprecedented and the occasional spelling and grammar errors seem to confirm that President Trump’s frequent tweets really do come unchecked and unrehearsed. The President even occasionally takes to Twitter to conduct his staffing policy with the recent example of him allegedly firing his top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, via the social media platform. Trump likes to be seen as in charge and an unfiltered, public showcasing of him firing the Secretary of State in that way reinforces this image to his voters.
But the firing of Rex Tillerson, and many White House officials before him, also points to a different matter. President Trump is increasingly ridding himself of opposing or critical voices that surround him. Significant actors in the State Department took an opposing position to Trump from the very early moments of his presidency. Senior diplomats, such as then acting US ambassador to the PRC, David Rank, went public and quit his job in the face of having to work for President Trump who had just pulled out of the Paris Climate agreement. Rex Tillerson himself, although appointed by Trump, made no secret out of his views sometimes opposing those of the President. An example was first and foremost the Iran deal, which was also ultimately quoted by Trump as a reason for the firing. The result was a dissonance between the White House and the State Department’s leader. Tillerson was often seen as being kept out of the loop, for instance when he ruled out direct talks with North Korea only days before President Trump agreed to such talks. At times contradictory statements from State Department and White House do little to counteract President Trump’s erratic image.
With regards to China and in particular Taiwan, the erratic nature becomes painstakingly clear and does so especially when looking at the first few months following the US Presidential elections.
The first major instance after Donald Trump was elected President in November 2016 with regards to US-PRC relations and Taiwan, was a phone call that the President-elect accepted on December 2, 2016 by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The congratulatory phone call, as it was described subsequently, was significant in that it was the first (public) direct communication between the elected leader of Taiwan and a US President or President-elect since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the PRC to the detriment of Taiwan in 1979.
Some speculation following the call centred around the idea that Trump, being a novice to politics, was unaware of the significance of the call and that he may have underestimated its greater meaning. Of course, this reading fit the narrative of many news media outlets at the time, still in great shock of the outcome of the election and eager to point to the inexperience of Trump and it was also the official line taken but Chinese state media.
In all likelihood however, the phone call was long planned and Trump gave at least his consent before it happened. Equally, President Tsai would have not made the call, had she not known that it would be answered. The Republicans surrounding Trump towards the end of the campaign and in his transition team are most likely to have implemented a strategy that included the phone call as a sign to the PRC, and to a lesser degree to Taiwan, that the new President will follow up on his strong campaign rhetoric against the PRC. It was likely also aimed at his voters, displaying that he was willing to shake up Washington D.C. and accepted protocol, much like he had said in his campaign rallies. It is further reasonable to assume that President-elect Trump was partial to the idea, as it fits well within his proclaimed preferred strategy of being “unpredictable” for this, albeit very little evidence, in his view will gain him a strategic advantage in negotiations with the PRC.
People close to the President at the time included Reince Priebus, Randall Schriver, Peter Navarro or Alexander Gray, all known for their rather hawkish stance on China and deep familiarity and friendliness with and towards Taiwan. Priebus has visited Taiwan several times, including in 2015 when he led a Republican delegation there. He also met with then presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen and keeps close contact to Taipei’s representation in Washington, D.C. Schriver, a frequent visitor to Taiwan, is a recipient of the Order of the Brilliant Star, which was given to him in commemoration of his efforts to improve US-Taiwan ties when he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of Asian and Pacific Affairs. He also previously led the Project 2049 Institute, a US think tank on security issues in the Asia-Pacific with substantial work being done on Taiwan, as President and CEO. Navarro, the author of the controversial book “Death by China”, is a declared China hawk and has also co-authored and published an article with Alexander Gray, criticising the Obama administration for not being tough enough on the PRC and outlining the new administration’s opportunities to right past wrongs in balancing in the Asia-Pacific. He is, different from Schriver or Priebus, probably a China critic first and a friend of Taiwan second but has also made several arguments for upgrading relations with Taiwan.
Considering that shortly after the call, Priebus was made White House chief of staff, Navarro the head of the White House National Trade Council, Schriver went on to become Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (although he was only appointed in January 2018) and Gray is at least rumoured to be appointed a leading role in the Defense Department, it can be assumed that they were at the time trusted by the President and more likely than not ‘had his ear’.
Less than two weeks after the phone call, the President-elect seemed to suggest a willingness to uproot the status-quo on the Taiwan issue even more, when in an interview with FOX News he stated: “I fully understand the ‘one China’ policy, but 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”.
Speculation about the direction which the Trump administration would take once sworn in ensued, with the PRC offering moderate responses via official channels, and hawkish responses through its more aggressive, non-authoritative media outlets. They all commonly rejected that there was any leeway whatsoever on the issue of one-China but differed considerably in tone with the Global Times, a non-authoritative newspaper, arguing that “China needs to begin a round of resolute struggle with him [and] needs to be fully armed and prepared to take a Sino-U.S. rollercoaster relationship together with Trump”.
The comparatively mellow PRC Foreign Ministry stated: “We urge the new US administration and leadership to be fully aware of the high sensitivity of the Taiwan question, stick to the one China policy and the principles of the three joint communiqués, and approach Taiwan-related issues with prudence so as to avoid any serious disruption and harm to the overall interests of the China-US relationship.”
The following weeks were rife with speculation and rumours, which included even that a fourth communiqué was going to be worked out and that Trump was willing and able to truly reset the relationship with the PRC over Taiwan. It was unclear however, in which direction the change would take place. Judging by the willingness of Trump and his staff to personally engage with Tsai Ing-wen people were anticipating a more hawkish stance towards China on the Taiwan question, maybe even supporting an independent Taiwan. Outgoing President Obama publicly urged the new administration to walk a more cautious path, but also added fuel to the fire by entertaining the idea that there is a real and tangible possibility of significant change in US policy towards the PRC and Taiwan. In his last days as US President, Obama encouraged the Trump team to
“think through what the consequences are” for “upending” the “one-China” policy. “For China,” he said, “the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. … The idea of one China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. … The Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues. They won’t even treat it the way they treat issues around the South China Sea where we’ve had a lot of tensions.” Moreover, “that [cross-strait] status quo, although not completely satisfactory to any of the parties involved, has kept the peace and allowed the Taiwanese to be a pretty successful…economy and a people who have a high degree of self-determination.”
If President-elect Trump personally really was unaware of the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue, both in the PRC and to a lesser extent domestically, he will have learnt about it in the aftermath of the phone call, when it became a major headline with media all across the globe, at times portraying Trump as the foreign policy novice, who had little idea what he was doing. At first, Trump doubled down on the phone call by questioning the one-China policy in general, but then rowed back considerably.
In a phone call to Xi Jinping on the occasion of the Chinese New Year in February 2017, President Trump made clear to Xi that he will honour the one-China policy, putting an end to the speculations of a major change in US policy in favour of Taiwan. In fact, after it was announced that President Xi will meet with President Trump for a US-China summit in Trump’s Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, rumours focused on a potential fourth communiqué again and what consequences the meeting could have for Taiwan when a transactional US President meets Xi and is eager to make “deals” on issues ranging from Chinese investments in the US to the threat of a nuclear North Korea. In the end, the issue of Taiwan was not at all discussed at the summit. It turned out that extreme speculations on both sides were unwarranted and Taiwan, at least at this stage, would neither be bargained away nor supported in terms of its independence. By not making Taiwan a matter of discussion, the traditional US policy of considering Taiwan’s status as unsettled, remained firmly in place.
In the actions that followed relevant to Taiwan, the US Congress played a major role, as it has done historically. It has traditionally been much more Taiwan friendly than the executive branch. Many members of Congress, of both parties, are strong advocates of a healthy and relevant US – Taiwan relation and have long made this clear. Any legislative act, however, once it has cleared Congress, needs either to be signed or not vetoed by the executive branch. Therefore, Congress is not always able to push as far ahead with certain initiatives as it might like and bills are sometimes rephrased after or even in anticipation of a pushback.
In June 2017, an amendment to the “National Defense Authorization Act 2018” was passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee including a number of measures that would significantly upscale US-Taiwan relations. These would have meant that the US would require US Navy ships to make regular port calls in Taiwan, allow the US Pacific Command to receive Taiwanese Navy ships for port calls in for example Hawaii or Guam, and require the Secretary of Defense shall implement a programme of “technical assistance and consultation to support the efforts of Taiwan to develop indigenous undersea warfare capabilities, including vehicles and sea mines, for its military forces.”
Notwithstanding, before the act reached the White House, where it was eventually signed into law on 12 December 2017, the requirements were scaled down significantly. The final version read like little was left of the amendment cited above. On the matter of port calls, it stated only a “sense of Congress that the United States should consider the advisability and feasibility of reestablishing port of call exchanges between the United States navy and the Taiwan navy.”
Another key moment then, right after the June amendment had been passed, was the approval of a US$ 1.4bn arms sale to Taiwan at the end of June 2017, consisting of military equipment largely modernising the island’s existing defence capabilities. This was the first of its kind under the Trump administration and despite a slightly smaller volume in comparison to previous arms packages sold to Taiwan, it attracted harsh criticism from the PRC and made clear that President Trump would continue to adhere to previous conventions in this respect.
Other acts of particular relevance here are the “Taiwan Travel Act” (TTA), the “Taiwan Security Act of 2017”, introduced in January and November 2017 respectively, and to a lesser extent the “Act to direct the Secretary of State to develop a strategy to regain observer status for Taiwan in the World Health Organization, and for other purposes”, which has passed the House in January 2018. The latter act and the Taiwan Security Act of 2017 are far from their final version however. As evidenced by the National Defense Authorization Act above, it is premature to discuss any impacts before they have completed the entire legislative process. The wording could still be changed significantly. Nonetheless, their future is of great interest. The Taiwan Security Act of 2017 once again includes calls for regular, required port calls, high-level military to military and diplomatic exchanges, as well as regular arms sales and corresponding institutionalised strategic dialogue. For now, it seems unlikely that it will reach and be signed by the President in its current version, given what happened to the language on port calls in the National Defense Authorization Act 2018.
The “Act to direct the Secretary of State to develop a strategy to regain observer status for Taiwan in the World Health Organization, and for other purposes”, is a reaction to increased pressure from the PRC on Taiwan’s observer status in international organisations. The US has an official policy of supporting Taiwan’s membership in international organisations when statehood is not a requirement. This is not the first bill introduced dealing with the issue of enhancing Taiwan’s international standing and relevance, but it is a more general bill to this purpose. It is not only supporting Taiwan’s return to the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation, but also broadly criticising recent PRC actions of precluding Taiwan from partaking in the international system, even where it was previously allowed to do so.
The Taiwan Travel Act has cleared the House of Representatives, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and has been passed by the Senate with unanimous consent. Through the whole process since its introduction, it has not encountered any opposition, which is important for two reasons. On the one hand, it shows that the bill is not at all controversial among legislators. On the other hand, it decreased the likelihood of being vetoed by the President, for it would be highly unusual to do so with a bill that went through Congress unopposed. In the bill, Congress finds that:
“Since the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act, relations between the United States and Taiwan have suffered from insufficient high-level communication due to the self-imposed restrictions that the United States maintains on high-level visits with Taiwan […].
It should be the policy of the United States to—
(1) allow officials at all levels of the United States Government, including Cabinet-level national security officials, general officers, and other executive branch officials, to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts;
(2) allow high-level officials of Taiwan to enter the United States, under conditions which demonstrate appropriate respect for the dignity of such officials, and to meet with officials of the United States, including officials from the Department of State and the Department of Defense and other Cabinet agencies; and
(3) encourage the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, and any other instrumentality established by Taiwan, to conduct business in the United States, including activities which involve participation by Members of Congress, officials of Federal, State, or local governments of the United States, or any high-level official of Taiwan.”
Whether or not the port calls will happen, and if the “Act to direct the Secretary of State to develop a strategy to regain observer status for Taiwan in the World Health Organization, and for other purposes” will receive President Trump’s signature, will send interesting signals with regards to US policy to the PRC and Taiwan and is worth following. The PRC firmly opposes all of these bills. The Taiwan Travel Act for instance, in Bejing’s view “gravely violate[s] the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiqués. If becoming law, it would severely disrupt China-US and the cross-Straits relations.”
Notwithstanding, it was signed into law by the President in March 2018. The bill reached the White House on the 6th of March 2018 and according the legislative process, it can then be signed or vetoed by the President. Failing to do either, a bill normally becomes law automatically after ten days. Interestingly, President Trump chose to sign the bill on the day before it would have become law without his signature. His signature sends a sign to Beijing.
While it carries significance for all parts of the US-PRC-ROC triangle, it worth pointing out that full legal impact of the law is still discussed. While many observers, including the PRC Foreign Ministry, hold that the act is not “legally binding” , others have put forward the argument that the act does not come without any legal force.
According to the wording of the law, it does not require the President to act. Neither does it, in theory, open new possibilities for the President. Under law prior to the act, he or she could have already convened such meetings. But the act encourages the government to do so, stating that Congress believes what the administration’s policy should be. The new law adds the factor of congressional oversight to the issue and if a pro-Taiwan Congress were to push high-level meetings, it now has sharper tools to do so. Also, the President could now “sell” such move to the PRC as being dictated by the elected legislators of his country and that he has no choice but to allow such meetings to take place.
The ambiguity that characterises so much of the US-PRC-ROC triangle also plays a big role here. Again, while the PRC claims that legally the act does not change all that much and that despite congressional oversight, President Trump is not legally required to initiate high-level visits, it remains to be seen how hard Congress or the White House want to push using the new law. The PRC is aware that this has the potential to usher in significant movement if the meetings were to go ahead and traditionally more hawkish state media has responded furiously. Indeed, the law could initiate a remarkable shift, depending on whether or not Trump will choose to break with standard protocol that has thus far precluded high-level meetings particularly among security officials from occurring.
In the month of March, in which the TTA was signed, three high-level visits have taken place. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing Ian Steff and U.S. Ambassador to APEC Matt Matthews have all made visits to Taiwan. Although the first two took place after the TTA entered into force, all would have been planned and scheduled before the TTA was signed and their immediately connection to the TTA is unclear. Nonetheless, in this respect, they are not least symbolically significant. A major test for how far President Trump is willing to push the high-level visits will be in June 2018, when the American Institute in Taiwan is scheduled to move into a new office building in Taipei. Speculation is rife with whom Washington will send to this event.
President Trump has repeatedly displayed himself and his kind of policy-making as transactional and based on hard negotiations in which you either win or lose. And while initial fears that Taiwan as a whole will be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the PRC on issues from trade to North Korea have been largely dispersed, it is possible that incremental US policy shifts to Taiwan could serve as leverage in Trump’s strategy. It is at least conceivable that Trump will support these bills not for moral reasons or because he is convinced of the value of Taiwan, but because he could use them as a threat to alter the status-quo away from Beijing’s preferred outcome. The last time a Cabinet-level U.S. official visited Taiwan was in 2014. Gina McCarthy, who headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was the first Cabinet-level U.S. official to visit the nation in 14 years.
In the PRC, President Xi is at the height of his power. At the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, he made clear that the Taiwan question is as central to Beijing’s narrative of “great rejuvenation” as ever. He reiterated as much at the closing of the “two sessions” in March 2018, reserving some particularly harsh words for Taiwan. Xi has an apparent desire to keep appearing strong and concentrate power and responsibility in his hands. If one considers a possible “deal” and then adds the severe moral hazard problem for Donald Trump, this could prove a dangerous constellation. Different from Xi, Trump is unlikely to view Taiwan as something valuable that warrants a strategy reaching deep into the future. The moral hazard is that Trump stands a chance of “winning” something from Beijing by playing with Taiwan, but it would not be him who faces the consequences if a deal goes wrong. First and foremost, this would be Taiwan.
The NSS and greater “Indo-Pacific” Strategy
The US National Security Strategy (NSS) paper that was released on December 18, 2017 adds some pressure to this. It is calling out the PRC as a strategic competitor and revisionist force, trying to extend its influence.
The paper indicates a continued and stronger commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, listing the area first and above Europe or the Middle East on it lists of strategies by geographical area. It states that the US “will redouble [its] commitment to established alliances and partnerships, while expanding and deepening relationships with new partners that share respect for sovereign, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law. [The US] will reinforce [its] commitment to freedom of the seas and the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes in accordance with international law.” With regards to Taiwan, it indicates no departure from previous policy: “We will maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our “One China” policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”
From Taiwan’s point of view, the message sent with the NSS is twofold. On the one hand, there is commitment both to the region in general and to Taiwan in particular, which no doubt is well-received in Taipei. A pushback by the US in the region against the ongoing expansion of the PRC as well as the official acknowledgment and concern about these developments are in Taiwan’s interest. On the other hand, although Taiwan is mentioned explicitly, it is not clear how great a role Taiwan plays in the US’ concern with regards to the region. The strategy has a clear economic thread woven through it and therefore confirms the impression that President Trump is highly concerned with unfair trade practices and advantages that the PRC has over the US. Since entering the political scene, Trump has also given a lot of attention to the situation in North Korea, which he sees as a more immanent threat than Taiwan’s shrinking international space or the PRC’s expansion.
In sum, Taiwan receives attention in the strategy and is presumably happy with greater US involvement in the region. But it still has to live with the fear that a “negotiator-president” would cast it aside should the potential of a deal on other, more important matters arise.
This is the case despite the fact that the NSS includes a number of value or morale-laden statements that could encourage Taiwan due to its commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The US pledges to “advance its values” and states that “[f]or much of the world, America’s liberties are inspirational, and the United States will always stand with those who seek freedom.” In its view, “[t]here can be no moral equivalency between nations that uphold the rule of law, empower women, and respect individual rights and those that brutalize and suppress their people […]. [I]t is part of our culture, as well as in America’s interest, to help those in need and those trying to build a better future […].”
With President Trump and how he conducted his foreign policy thus far, the real degree of reassurance of these words has to remain doubtful. Questions remain as to how much of this would be followed through by an administration that operates with so much uncertainty and has on many occasions changed direction significantly. Notwithstanding the fact that a move that would fully cast aside Taiwan remains highly unlikely, the Trump Presidency has made words that would otherwise be highly encouraging much less forceful.
Very much related to the greater involvement in the Indo-Pacific is another crucial factor that was first brought up by the President during his election campaign. Already aiming at an increased US footprint in the Indo-Pacific, but also very much about- maybe predominantly- creating industrial jobs in the US, candidate Trump boasted about his commitment to a significant build-up to a 350-ship navy. However, such a plan faces a number of serious obstacles ranging from budgetary restraints, to industrial capacity and political viability of such an effort.
However, the idea is popular among many China critics, who would welcome the build-up as a pushback against PLA Navy expansion and modernisation, and as a response to a narrowing gap between US and PRC military capabilities. A recent RAND study has found that “[a]lthough China’s capabilities fall behind those of the United States, it is now able to pose significant challenges to U.S. operations.” With regards to Taiwan in particular, the study finds that compared to the last Taiwan-Strait crisis in 1996, the PRC now has an “advantage” or “approximate parity” in six out of nine areas that the study looked at. In 1996, the PRC was at a “major disadvantage” or “disadvantage” in seven of the nine areas. Of course the study does not focus exclusively on the Navy or fleet-size, but it is illustrative of the gains that the PRC has been making and why some feel strongly that a pushback is necessary to keep the promise of the TRA to “maintain the capacity of the US to resist any resort to force or coercion against Taiwan”.
In reaction to the difficulties that Trump’s campaign promise is facing, the President has been quieter on the issue since his election, but a version of the intended build-up has found its way into the already cited 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. It states that the US shall have available “not fewer than 355 ships”, “as soon as practicable”. Whilst there is little reason to assume that “as soon as practicable” is anytime soon, including the effort in the bill has meaning.
Conclusion and Outlook
In conclusion, the presidency of Donald Trump has thus far had a mixed impact on US Taiwan policy. On the one hand, there are clear advances and a deepening of US-Taiwan relations. There was for example the discussed presidential phone call as well as more abstract promises of supporting allied democracies in the struggle against oppression. There are also concrete policies such as the TTA, possible port calls or the greater role that the US seeks to play in the Indo-Pacific as well as the planned build-up of the US Navy.
On the other hand, President Trump has shown that he is happy to row back on the Taiwan issue if he seeks the help from or negotiates with the PRC on other issues. This became evident in the aftermath of the phone call and Trump’s efforts to move the PRC to exert more influence over North Korea. Despite reassurances from senior White House staff that Taiwan need not worry about US commitment to it, it will have never felt more exposed to being used as a bargaining chip since the Nixon era.
The underlying impression for US Taiwan policy and US foreign policy in general, is that President Trump does not seem to be bound by following a greater foreign policy strategy. Nor has he yet found an overall strategy to follow. Rather, he evaluates ad hoc, case by case, and so far, his term seems to suggest that he mainly acts based on a short-term and transactional rationale. It is this rationale that could help explain why President Trump casts doubt over US commitments in the world and to long-standing allies in one moment, and then reaffirms them in another. The President is out to make “good deals”. However, as much as this can and occasionally has worked, it has troubling potential to erode longer term US interests.
US Taiwan policy therefore suffers from the same weakness as most other parts of foreign policy under President Trump. Despite making some progress and sending positive and reassuring signs with single policy moves, it almost entirely lacks the provision of certainty and reliability. Even policies that are understandably welcomed by many in Taiwan, such as the TTA and the President’s decision to sign it, increased involvement in Asian waters, or the unequivocal recognition of the PRC as a competitor, cannot unfold to their full potential when the impression remains that another volte-face is just around the corner.
The US administration’s lack of clear direction is exemplified by the Taiwan policy turns described above. The administration, perhaps more than ever, is showing a lack of unity under the polarising leadership of Donald Trump. The State Department in particular is at times seen to pull into another direction than the President. The firing of its top diplomat in March, as well as the ongoing scarce staffing of the State Department is weakening its influence.
The lack of clarity in direction and the open discourse between those who argue in favour of a tough PRC approach and those who remain in the camp seeking to de-escalate or accommodate is not deemed to fail to serve US long term interests. But it is bearing significant risks. The absence of clear strategy invites more radical ideas to find its way into the White House. This is why more significant changes, such as the TTA, were unlikely to happen under previous administrations, but are happening now. Change in discourse itself is of course not a bad thing. Many PRC critics who were dismayed under the Obama administration are happy to see that that their voices are being heard more than before. Whilst particularly hawkish observers may feel a sense of vindication with undoubtedly increased aggression on behalf of the PRC, one must not rule out that Chinese aggressions are at least in part also a reaction to harsher signals sent from Washington.
From Taiwan’s viewpoint, there are important differences between advocates of an aggressive policy arguing to counter a PRC threat, and those, who are critical of the PRC’s moves but keep an emphasis on stability. Stability after all, is what is needed most and a spiral of harsh responses and actions on either side can easily get out of hand. How exactly stability be guaranteed is very much up for discussion, but profound and continued uncertainty is not going to help.
A degree of ambiguity in the US-PRC-ROC relations has overall served security and stability well. The unofficial maintenance of significant US-ROC ties is one example, the “agreement” on one-China, albeit meaning two very different things, is another. The Trump administration has come to power at a time however, where the circumstances in Asia are changing significantly. The US-Taiwan policy needs to reflect this, without stirring up aggression unnecessarily. It is advisable for the Trump administration to remain committed to the very fundaments of the relationship, i.e. the one-China policy as it has evolved today.
This includes the tenet not to intervene or actively pursue a preferred outcome on the status of Taiwan. The “solution” of the Cross-Strait problem needs to be achieved by the two parties on either side of the Taiwan Strait. However, US policy ought to reflect also what has changed since the third communiqué and the TRA.
Taiwan has evolved into a thriving democracy and stern US ally and should be treated as such. This includes high-level visits, continued sale of arms, as well as participation in the international system to the extent that it has done previously. The US ought to make clear unequivocally that it would not accept a non-peaceful resolution of the Cross-Strait situation. This would be not only detrimental to Taiwan, obviously, but to the US alliance system as a whole. The US should seek a more comprehensive US-Taiwan relationship, including security and defence exchanges to discourage attempts of a forceful unification.
One delicate caveat for the defence relationship is that the US must be aware of the possibility of future unification. The US cannot challenge any future arrangement between Taiwan and the mainland if it came about on acceptable and peaceful terms. Therefore, it is well advised to keep its military cards closer to its chest than under other circumstances.
Most importantly, the US ought to have a sound communication strategy towards the PRC. The other part that has significantly changed in the region is the rise of the PRC and with it, their military capabilities. The PRC cannot be played or kept guessing as to what the US may or may not do in a crisis. Possible miscalculations need to be kept to a minimum. In order to achieve this, Washington needs to speak with one voice. A functional State Department is as important as an overall foreign policy strategy that is followed by all actors. Lastly, the Taiwan question should not dictate US-PRC relations. A generally cooperative approach and a principled, clear stance on the use of force in the Taiwan Strait are not mutually exclusive.
[A] Jan Kliem was awarded the generous Taiwan Fellowship by the Taiwan MoFA in 2018 which allowed him to research and write this paper at NCCU Taipei, Taiwan.
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 For a more detailed version of the history, see COM 2 2018: US – Taiwan – PRC Relations: A brief history of US policy towards Taiwan.
 See e.g. Easton (2017), Easton (2017a), Fanell/ Gershaneck (2017)
 This argument was pointed out to the author during an interview at Prospect Foundation, an esteemed research organisation with expertise in cross-strait relations, foreign policy, national security and international relations in Taipei in February 2018.
 See deLisle (2004)
Taiwan’s Constitution of 1947 with Amendments through 2005, available at http://www.parliament.am/library/sahmanadrutyunner/Taiwan.pdf, accessed: 20.02.2018
 As a general rule, and here only as a side note, most US Presidents tend to struggle in their first foreign policy year. For this, see the interesting study by the Miller Center’s First Year Project (https://millercenter.org/issues-policy/the-first-year) and Nelson, M. et al. (2018)
 Rex Tillerson – “Fired by Twitter” – Regime Change at the State Department. What’s Next?, 16.03.18, Global Research, https://www.globalresearch.ca/rex-tillerson-fired-by-twitter-regime-change-at-the-state-department-whats-next/5632322, accessed: 19.03.18
 cting US ambassador to China resigns over Trump’s Paris decision: report, 06.05.17, The Hill, http://thehill.com/policy/international/336428-acting-us-ambassador-to-china-resigns-over-trumps-paris-decision-report, accessed: 19.03.18
 For example: Donald Trump’s Taiwan Call Is a Bad Omen for His Foreign Policy, Time, 07.12.2016, http://time.com/4594244/donald-trump-foreign-policy-taiwan-china/, accessed 01.03.2018 and No need to over-interpret Tsai-Trump phone call, People’s Daily, 04.12.2016, http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/1204/c90000-9150473.html, accessed: 01.03.2018
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 Swaine (2017): 5ff.
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 H.R.2810 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, Engrossed Amendment Senate (09/18/2017), Sec 1270 A / 1270B, available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2810/text/eas?, accessed: 28.02.18, emphasis added
 H.R.2810 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, Section 1259, available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2810/text#toc-HB4CCBAB573FC46B183CE93D52BD63238, accessed: 28.02.18, emphasis added.
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 See US Department of State, Relations with Taiwan, available at: https://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35855.htm, accessed: 02.03.18
 See H.R. 428 in the 107th Congress, S. 2092 in the 108th Congress , H.R. 1151 in the 113th Congress or H.R. 1853 in the 114th Congress
 See H.R.3320 – To direct the Secretary of State to develop a strategy to regain observer status for Taiwan in the World Health Organization, and for other purposes, particularly Sec A (2, 4), available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3320/text, accessed: 02.03.18
 H.R.535 – Taiwan Travel Act, available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/535/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22taiwan%22%5D%7D&r=1, accessed: 01.03.18
 Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang’s Regular Press Conference on February 9, 2018, available at: http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1533682.shtml, accessed: 1.03.2018
 Presidential Signature, United States Senate, https://www.senate.gov/reference/glossary_term/presidential_signature.htm, accessed: 23.03.18
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 For a more detailed discussion of how the law is in fact legally binding, see: Ignore the Hype: The Taiwan Travel Act is Legally Binding, Lawfare Blog, available at: https://www.lawfareblog.com/ignore-hype-taiwan-travel-act-legally-binding, accessed 20.03.18
 China to respond ‘Taiwan Travel Act’ with military pressure: experts, 18.03.18, Global Times, available at: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1093955.shtml, accessed: 19.03.18
 Xi warns Taiwan will face ‘punishment of history’ for separatism, Reuters, available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-parliament-taiwan/xi-warns-taiwan-will-face-punishment-of-history-for-separatism-idUSKBN1GW07X, accessed: 20.03.18
 National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 18 December 2017, available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf, accessed: 03.03.18
 See ibid
 For a concise analysis of each of these, see Stashwick (2017)
 Heginbotham, et al (2015)
 See ibid.
 H.R.2810 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, Sec 1025(a), available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2810/text, accessed: 28.02.18