The emergence in Washington of a fledgling administration, featuring a President with no administrative or legislative track record on Asia, and a shortage of familiar Asia hands—who usually set the policy parameters—has been unsettling for America’s regional security partners. In this, Taiwan is no exception. While the decision of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to prioritize Asian alliances during his first official trip to Seoul and Tokyo was reassuring, as was Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s seemingly successful Washington and Florida summits, questions about past campaign rhetoric remain. This includes then-candidate Trump’s admonition that Asian allies take on greater cost-sharing for the stationing of US forces (Taiwan has always paid 100 percent of the cost for defensive weapons provided by the United States under the stipulations of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.)
Then there was the criticism of trade partners who are seen as “stealers” of American manufacturing jobs. At a campaign rally last October in Warren, Michigan, candidate Trump singled out Taiwan as well when he said, “The sheet metal parts and dyes they used to make right here … now come from China, South Korea and Taiwan.” Further, the decision by President Trump on his first full business day to sign an executive order withdrawing the United States from the negotiating process of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has widespread trade repercussions for all of the United States’ major Pacific trading partners. Taiwan is the United States’ ninth-largest trading partner and had hoped to join the TPP.
The threat by candidate Trump to impose a 45 percent punitive import tariff on Chinese-origin goods, as opposed to the current average of about 3 percent, due to Beijing’s “currency manipulation and illegal export subsidies,” as discussed by White House National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro, could have an adverse impact on Taiwan’s economy. A large number of mainland Chinese factories, including Foxconn’s production facilities in and around Kunshan, Zhengzhou, and Shenzhen, make use of Taiwanese capital and management while using a Chinese labor force. A Sino-American tariff war, therefore, would have severe repercussions for the Taiwanese economy, as well as on Japan and South Korea.
Clarification on the Trump Administration’s Taiwan security policy is needed. Then President-elect Trump’s congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen broke with post-1979 diplomatic precedent and seemed to point to a possible new direction in Taiwan policy. Of course, at the same time, the appearance of Dr. Henry Kissinger at Trump Tower immediately after the Tsai phone call was an indication that Beijing was also weighing in on cross-Strait policy with the incoming Administration. Kissinger, who reportedly has won the admiration of Trump, renewed his famous 1970s “shuttle diplomacy” by traveling, as a “lao pengyou” (老朋友, old friend), to see Xi Jinping in Beijing before his meeting with then President-elect Trump. Around that same time, Kissinger made an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” where he opined that Donald Trump could accomplish “something remarkable” in US foreign policy, filling the “partial vacuum” left by President Barack Obama, who “basically withdrew” America from international politics. Kissinger, of course, is widely remembered as the facilitator for Richard Nixon’s opening and historic 1972 trip to China. He recorded in his memoir, On China, the famous line from a conversation he had with Chairman Mao where Mao said, “I say that we can do without Taiwan for the time being, and let it come after one hundred years.”
It was Kissinger who also negotiated the language of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué with then Premier Zhou Enlai on the “One- China” policy. This policy was recently again the focus of much press attention surrounding the February 9th phone conversation between Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Some clarification on the “One-China “policy, however, seems to be required. The Washington Post, for example, reported on February 10th that “The White House said Trump reaffirmed his administration would honor Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy that stipulates Taiwan is officially part of China despite the island having a separate government.” The White House press release actually stated that “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our (that is, the US’s) ‘One-China’ policy.” For the Trump Administration to “honor Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy,” as the Post reported, would indeed represent a fundamental change in US policy.
In the language related to Taiwan in the original Shanghai Communiqué in 1972, the two sides agreed to disagree on the subject of “One-China.” While Beijing asserted that “Taiwan is a province of China” and that “the liberation of Taiwan is China’s internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere,” the US position is quite different. The US side declared, “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”
The US “One-China” policy therefore differs fundamentally from Beijing’s “One-China” position, referred to as the “One-China” principle, in that it recognizes China as a geographic entity but NOT the assertion that Taiwan is a part of the PRC political regime. It further asserts that the people of Taiwan, as well as those in the PRC, have a legitimate interest in the settlement of the Taiwan question and that the United States has a legitimate interest in a peaceful outcome. In addition to the three communiqués with Beijing, US policy towards Taiwan is further clarified in the congressionally mandated Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances, as Secretary of State Tillerson recently reaffirmed at his Senate confirmation hearing. In fact, if Washington did accept Beijing’s “One-China” principle there would be no reasonable basis for the 35-plus years of defensive arms sales to Taiwan as mandated in the TRA.
Thus, a further clarification of the new Administration’s views on what constitutes the “One-China” policy may be in order, especially since the White House readout of the Trump-Xi call used the word “honor,” which may have a different implication than the original 1972 language of “acknowledge.”
Finally, the new Administration has adopted more robust rhetoric with regard to regional flashpoints, such as the South China Sea, Senkaku/Diaoyutai territory, and the Korean peninsula—although the new Secretary of State has walked back his earlier suggestion of preventing Chinese access to its fortified islands in the South China Sea. A potential military confrontation between the PRC and the United States in any of these areas would naturally have a direct and adverse impact on Taiwan’s security. Also, the suggestion that Taiwan and its interests could be used as a “bargaining chip” with the PRC in negotiations on trade or other issues has raised some concern.
The forceful statement of the new Secretary of State on this issue at his confirmation hearing, however, was reassuring. Mr. Tillerson stated that, “The people of Taiwan are friends of the United States and should not be treated as a bargaining chip. The US commitment to Taiwan is both a legal commitment and a moral imperative.” The best means of clarifying Taiwan policy in Trump’s Administration would be to allow Secretary Tillerson to rapidly get his Asia team in place, for General Mattis to do the same, and for a new National Security Advisor to expeditiously reorganize the National Security Council.
The first concrete indication of the approach the Trump Administration will take with regard to Taiwan will be signaled by the provision of a robust new arms sale package. Such a package should seek to address, through sales or assistance with indigenous production, the long-stalled diesel-electric submarine question in order to meet the maritime threat posed by Beijing’s current naval build-up in the waters surrounding Taiwan.
The main point: The delays in the new Trump Administration’s assembling of a national security team, plus past protectionist and isolationist campaign rhetoric, have caused angst among America’s Asian security partners, including Taiwan. Mixed signals on increased engagement with Taiwan versus less than clear statements on the “One China” policy indicate that the jury is still out on the Trump Administration’s Taiwan policy. The expeditious provision of a robust arms sale package, including diesel-electric submarines, would go a long way in clarifying Trump Administration policy on Taiwan.