Although Donald Trump’s inauguration is just weeks away, there are precious few indications as to how he will manage American foreign policy, and the president-elect has said essentially nothing about his views on Taiwan. As one Taiwan-based scholar commented shortly after the US election, “Our consensus is that we have no idea what he is thinking.” In the absence of some utterance or action that indicates Mr. Trump’s agenda, the best we can do is to anticipate what opportunities may be in store for the United States and Taiwan, as well as the considerable risks.
As a candidate, Mr. Trump clearly favored iconoclastic rhetoric toward both America’s allies and its adversaries—to the point that his administration will either be marked by a reversal of many of the candidate’s pronouncements or a fundamental reorientation of American foreign policy. President Trump’s views are likely to be tested from his first days in office, as governments like the People’s Republic of China, with their growing military capabilities and territorial ambitions, test his will to maintain American commitments to allies in the Asia Pacific.
This dilemma will create an opportunity for Congress to reassert itself on foreign policy in order to smooth the transition period. This likelihood reflects both a bipartisan wariness toward Mr. Trump and an opportunity to move beyond the pre-election gridlock that prevented almost any legislation from moving over the past two years. In light of Congress’s long tradition of stewarding the US-Taiwan relationship since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, this issue will naturally receive attention from the Hill.
Congress is well positioned to continue its activism on such issues as arms sales, Taiwan’s status at international organizations, and bilateral security cooperation. While these issues have been the subject of stand-alone legislative initiatives in recent years, they may benefit from being packaged into a single effort to modernize US-Taiwan ties. Even if such a package is unsuccessful, it could raise the profile of the issue and set the agenda for years to come, as did the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act following its debate in 1999-2000.
The legislative branch can also work to set the tone for America’s role by pursuing a more expansive democracy promotion agenda. Swift passage of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would create sanctions tools for targeting Chinese officials who violate human rights. This would place Beijing on notice that the Hill is pushing these issues, reaffirm American support for Taiwan’s democratic system, and provide a focus for hearings and the work of the congressional commissions that report on China’s human rights record.
Another significant opportunity for Congress to shape the relationship with Taiwan will be through a significant increase in the US defense budget. Adopting an emergency defense supplemental or a long-term fix to the Budget Control Act will require bipartisan deal-making, and will be a precondition for Trump’s proposed naval build-up. Even if the Trump administration muddles through its initial foreign policy forays, this type of investment will make it possible to grow America’s presence and credibility in the region.
President Trump would do well to pursue the opportunities that an eager partner in Taipei and an engaged Congress will offer. Although there is much to debate in his mercantilist rhetoric, it suggests that he will be eager to expand arms sales to a willing partner like Taiwan. This may provide his administration an opportunity to expand the scope of bilateral arms talks to better address the growing threat that China’s military modernization poses to Taiwan, especially if the Tsai Ing-wen government chooses to increase its own investments in Taiwan’s defense.
In light of Mr. Trump’s penchant for iconoclasm, it is also possible that his administration will review with a skeptical eye the catechisms that have long governed American policy toward Taiwan and the cross-Strait relationship. As Elbridge Colby and Walter Slocombe recently argued, one question Trump should ask is whether American ambiguity regarding the defense of Taiwan remains advisable in light of Beijing’s growing power and its eagerness to test American will in the East and South China Seas.
If Mr. Trump chooses to revisit an American commitment Taiwan’s security, he would do well to remember the experience of George W. Bush, who declared in April 2001 that he would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan. Although this statement was quickly walked back at the time, it is worth noting that it was a position that Bush had campaigned on, and not a simple gaffe. Rather, President Bush learned the price of failing to socialize his views within the bureaucracy and larger policy community in Washington. Trump should avoid similar missteps and make certain that any new policy is well crafted and executed.
The great risk surrounding Mr. Trump’s election is that he may simply not value the world order that Americans have built and sustained since World War II. His comment during first presidential debate that “we cannot protect countries all over the world where they’re not paying us what we need,” captures the dangers of this approach to foreign policy, describing American security commitments as though they were protection rackets. If this view dominates his administration, Taiwan and other security partners could find themselves left in the cold in favor of new “deals” with adversaries like Beijing.
The uncertainty surrounding Mr. Trump’s detailed foreign policy views, and whether he can push as radical a change as he described on the campaign trail through the American national security bureaucracy will be a great drama, which will play itself out in the years ahead. Taiwan’s friends should work with traditional partners, particularly on Capitol Hill, to identify a path that can advance the interests of each party, grasping the discrete opportunities that lay before us and avoiding potentially catastrophic mistakes.