On January 20, Donald J. Trump was sworn-in as the 45th president of the United States of America. On an often-fiery campaign trail that rallied behind the “America First” slogan, Trump, as president, is vested now with the authority to direct government policies in pursuit of that goal. Following his oath of office, President Trump delivered his administration’s first major policy speech. Clear in tone but short on specifics, the President laid out his vision for America at home and abroad. What might “America First” mean in application?
Three notable statements from his inaugural speech, which are relevant to Taiwan policy, highlight President Trump’s distinct contribution to American foreign policy:
- “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
- “We [the United States] do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.”
- “We [the United States] will reinforce old alliances and form new ones.”
In light of President Trump’s inaugural address, we can discern three prongs to his “America First” agenda (perhaps in order of priority): 1) emphasis on the economy 2) pragmatic foreign policy and 3) maintaining and creating new alliances.
In an apparent attempt to assuage concerns about the 45th President’s statements on the campaign trail that suggested the United States might turn its back on allies and disengage from world affairs, the Trump White House explained on its website that an “America First” foreign policy will be “focused on American interests and American national security.” Specifically, the administration’s policies will be geared towards maintaining US “military dominance,” and, more interestingly, reminded readers that, “[t]he world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”
A signal of how the Trump administration may triage policy priorities—both foreign and domestic—was on clear display in his first official work day in office. That Trump would withdraw from the TPP is not surprising, since he previously stated that this was one of his administration’s policy priorities for the first 100 days. As one of his first executive orders as president, Trump directed the US Trade Representative to “withdraw the United States as a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to permanently withdraw the United States from TPP negotiations, and to begin pursuing, wherever possible, bilateral trade negotiations to promote American industry, protect American workers, and raise American wages.”
There are signs that foreign businesses are responding to Trump’s call. For example, Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group (富士康), which is the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, indicated that it was considering “build[ing] a plant for displays,” possibly in Pennsylvania, thus potentially investing more than $7 billion domestically, and creating 30,000 to 50,000 jobs.
What is the takeaway from these preliminary data points? Despite the actions and statements made by Trump while he was the president-elect, it seems increasingly apparent that the primary emphasis of his administration is on the economic prong of a tripartite policy. While President Trump acknowledged the importance of international values embodied in the American “way of life,” it is not clear how this element fits into the new administration’s views with regard to dealing with allies and potential adversaries. That said, it is still too early to tell.
Indeed, it should be reassuring to allies that President Trump has stated his administration’s intent to “reinforce old alliances”; the administration should also remember that the value of such alliances stems, in part, from a shared commitment to creating a liberal order.
As former 2016 Republican presidential candidate and current-Ohio governor, John Kasich, wrote in a recent Times article:
Why is it essential that we support our allies? … It’s also about protecting the collective human values that have for so long sustained the United States and what we rightly call the Free World—values such as freedom of speech; universal respect for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion; and a world open to free enterprise, travel and trade. These are the shared values that we and our allied nations believe in; the same values others scorn and deny to those they rule.
The main point: There appear to be three discernible prongs to Trump’s “America First” policy: 1) emphasis on the economy; 2) pragmatic foreign policy; and 3) maintaining and creating new alliances.
Economic Coercion against Taiwan: Divide and Conquer
Dr. Parris Chang is professor emeritus of Political science, Penn State University and President of the Taiwan Inst. for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies; he was member of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, Deputy Secretary-General of the National Security Council, and Taiwan’s Representative to the Kingdom of Bahrain.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call with US President-Elect Donald Trump last December and his questioning of the “one China” policy have angered Beijing. Chinese officials have blamed Taiwan for creating the trouble and there are indications that Beijing is planning to undertake a series of economic measures to coerce Taiwan. A retired military officer stated that China need not fire any missiles to bring Taiwan to its knees; he asserted, “We can just cut them [Taiwan] off economically, no more direct flights, no more trade, nothing. Taiwan would not last long.”
Since President Tsai came into office in May 2016, Beijing has frozen official communications and engagements with Taipei (although other channels remain in place), delayed meetings mandated by the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and barred Taiwan’s ministers, deputy ministers and other ranking officials from attending meetings in China. However, Beijing’s relentless pressure has failed to force Tsai to accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” and its “one China” principle. Measures include restriction of Chinese tourism to Taiwan (in the past year, tourism from the People’s Republic of China has declined by almost 50 percent); suspension or reduction of imports of Taiwan’s agricultural commodities, milkfish and industrial products.
Reinforcing this gradual shift in Beijing’s strategy are ties with Taiwan’s large enterprises and corporate leaders, who have benefited from the liberalization of cross-Strait trade and investment made possible by the ECFA. Moreover, Beijing has also set up and utilized economic forums such as the Boao and Nanjing Forums to co-opt Taiwan’s business elites. Many of them have strongly supported cross-Strait rapprochement and provided large donations to Kuomintang (KMT) candidates during previous elections.
Indeed, the Chinese authorities have applied pressure on Taiwanese merchants in China to keep their distance from the Tsai government and refrain from supporting what they perceive to be an independence movement in Taiwan. Hai-Pa-Wang (H.P.W) International Group, which owns a major food supply chain in China, was audited for tax evasion and investigated for the violation of regulations. The company was compelled to take out a front-page advertisement in Taiwan’s major newspapers on December 5, 2016 to disassociate with the Tsai government and proclaim its adherence to Beijing’s policy that “both Taiwan and the Mainland belong to one China.” An Feng-shan, TAO press spokesman, likewise admonished Taiwan businessmen last December that Chinese authorities encourage and support Taiwan merchants investment in China, but would never allow someone who made money in China to support Taiwan independence.
As part of Beijing’s political warfare and united front operation against Taiwan, several Taiwanese tycoons have, at Beijing’s behest, acquired newspapers and TV outlets, including the China Times, Want Daily. CTV, and CTITV, all owned by the WantWant Group. Beijing directs these media outlets and others that have received Chinese funding to engage in political polemics, propagate “correct” information and promote Beijing’s agenda on Taiwan.
How did we get here? Soon after taking over party leadership from Hu Jintao in late 2012, Xi Jinping was quick to amend his predecessor’s soft and gradual approach; instead, he pushed harder and faster on his own Taiwan policy agenda. Xi exerted immense pressure on President Ma to move toward a cross-Strait political dialogue that would lead to a peace agreement, but Ma insisted on a formula of “economics first, politics later,” limiting cross-Strait interaction to economic relations. Ma was well aware that the two sides are far apart on key political and security issues, and Taiwan’s public cannot accept a peace agreement with China or terminate Taiwan’s special security relationship with the United States.
In the economic arena, Beijing tried also to move further toward cross-Strait economic integration, in order to push political reunion. Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation signed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in June 2013, but its approval was blocked by the Legislative Yuan. Beijing put immense pressure on Ma and the KMT-dominated LY to railroad the passage of the CSSTA, but the pressure tactics backfired and triggered a massive protest movement, much to Chinese leaders’ chagrin.
The Sunflower Movement started in March 2014, when scores of college students abruptly broke into the Legislative Yuan compound and occupied the assembly chamber. Over the next weeks, a huge rally of half-a-million protesters demonstrated in front of the Presidential Palace against Ma’s pro-China policies and his failure to consult lawmakers and the affected enterprises with regard to the CSSTA. The protesters were concerned that the CSSTA would harm local businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. Other concerns included fears that China’s secret agents and a “fifth column” of PRC sympathizers would, in the guise of businesspersons, worm their way into Taiwan to engage in espionage, sabotage, subversion, and a united front operation to harm Taiwan. Student protesters feared that China could annex Taiwan as Russia did Crimea.
Xi may be bewildered that China has failed to win over the hearts and the minds of Taiwanese. But Beijing’s strategy to buy Taiwan has only enriched a handful of compradors and business tycoons, while alienating ordinary people, who have suffered from the flight of capital and the relocation of production facilities to China, resulting in high unemployment and stagnant wages, especially among young Taiwanese.
With the Chinese economy slowing down, many Taiwanese people are questioning the wisdom of Taiwan’s excessive dependence on China’s market. A growing number of Taiwanese merchants are leaving China and investing in Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma. In his message to Taiwan, Xi has called for ethnic solidarity, national unity, and extolled the glorious rejuvenation of the Chinese nation—stale cliches which do not appeal to young Taiwanese at all. They have been alienated by Xi’s repressive Communist regime and harsh crackdown on dissent, and want no part of it. On the contrary, Xi is ensuring that his “China Dream” (中國夢）of reunification is only further beyond his reach.
The main point: Beijing has employed a divide and conquer strategy to alternately buy and coerce Taiwan into closer ties with the PRC. However, neither approach has successfully won the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people.
 Based on my interview with an official from the Taiwan Bureau of Tourism.
 Terry Kuo (chairman of the Foxconn Technology Group) is among the business tycoons who made huge political contributions to President Ma, Mayor Jason Hu of Taichung and other KMT candidates—many TV talk show guests openly talked about such information, which is highly plausible but impossible to document.
 H.P.W’s advertisement appeared in Taiwan’s major papers on Dec 5th, 2016.
 Chien-jung Hsu, “China’s Influence on Taiwan’s Media,” Asian Survey, 54, no. 3 (June 2014), 517-18, https://as.ucpress.edu/content/54/3/515.full.pdf+html.
 This summary is based on my talks with Sunflower Movement activists inside the LY assembly chamber, in March 2014.