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Will Trump Throw Taiwan Under the Bus?

Nov 06 , 2019
  • Dennis V. Hickey

    James F. Morris Endowed Professor of Political Science, Missouri State University

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On October 6, the Trump administration abruptly announced that it had decided to withdraw US forces from northern Syria, a move many analysts believe will clear the way for Turkey to annihilate America’s Kurdish allies. As Abdulla al-Shayji, a member of parliament in Kuwait, tweeted, Trump “threw them [the Kurds] under a bus…another bitter lesson for all America’s allies!”

Trump defended his decision to abandon the Kurds by claiming he was only living up to his 2016 campaign promise to end the “stupid endless wars.” As the US election cycle nears and the impeachment inquiry drags on, it is likely that he will seek to fulfill more unrealized campaign promises. Near the top of any wish list is the inking of a grand trade bargain with China. Will the President agree to meaningful concessions on the so-called “Taiwan issue” in order to close a deal? In other words, is Trump going to throw Taiwan under the bus?

Taiwanese officials praise Trump and claim that he has improved US-Taiwan relations more than any other American president. But history is replete with examples of “friendly” US administrations that sacrificed Taiwan’s interests in order to achieve US foreign policy goals. A brief review of American policy underscores this point.

During the 1952 presidential campaign, Republicans blamed Democrats for “the loss of China” and argued that it was time to abandon the “containment policy” and “roll back” communism—including “Red China.” Not surprisingly, Taipei supported the candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower and even funneled information (some fabricated) to Senator Joseph McCarthy (R.-Wisconsin) and others about the “disloyal” activities of US State Department personnel. After his election victory, however, Eisenhower quietly notified Taipei that he would not support any schemes to “retake the mainland,” and that he favored “peaceful rollback.” Moreover, the president insisted that any Taiwan attack on the mainland must first be approved by Washington. This led President Chiang Kai-shek to complain that the new administration’s policy was “the same as the past.”

The series of steps that led ultimately to the rapprochement between Washington and Beijing in 1972 have been extensively documented elsewhere and there is no need to recite them here. Suffice it to say, however, declassified documents reveal that President Richard Nixon broke his 1970 promise to “never sell you [Taiwan] down the river.” In his effort to cultivate ties with China, Nixon agreed to almost every concession demanded by Beijing. He stated plainly that Taiwan belongs to China, and that the US opposes Taiwan independence. Moreover, Henry Kissinger promised that the US would not oppose the reunification of China and would not insist that Beijing employ peaceful means to achieve that end. And the Chinese were told that Washington would sever all military and diplomatic relations with Taiwan during Nixon’s second term in office.

Domestic political problems prevented Nixon from dumping Taiwan in the mid-1970s. However, on December 15, 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with China, to become effective January 1, 1979. Carter had acquiesced to Beijing’s three conditions for normalization—termination of relations with Taipei, abrogation of the US-Taiwan defense treaty, and removal of all troops from Taiwan. Furthermore, Carter’s proposed legislation to guide “unofficial” relations—the Taiwan Enabling Act—made no provisions for Taiwan’s security, arms transfers, operation of representative offices, and other matters (Congress rejected the law and instead passed the Taiwan Relations Act).

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate, promised to reestablish diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This never happened. Rather, Reagan pledged to reduce arms sales to Taiwan in the 1982 US-China Communique. He also cleared the way for US arms sales to China.

In the years since Reagan, Taiwan has continued to experience a series of “disappointments.” In 1998, President Bill Clinton upset Taiwan with his “three no’s” policy (the US will not support “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan,” “Taiwan independence” or Taiwan’s membership in international governmental organizations). Moreover, rather than remain silent whenever the Taiwan representation issue was raised at the UN, the US began to support Beijing and vote against Taipei’s membership. For his part, President George W. Bush initially appeared to support Taiwan. By the end of his second-term, however, Bush and a host of US officials had criticized Taipei. In 2004, Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State, went so far as to proclaim, “there is only one China, Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation and that remains our policy, our firm policy.”

These examples support Lord Palmerston’s observation that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Or as Chen Shui-bian, then Taiwan’s president, observed, “the US has its interests, while we have ours. Sometimes the two correspond and sometimes they even clash.” And that brings us back to the present situation.

On October 11, Trump announced a breakthrough in the difficult trade negotiations with Beijing. When making the announcement, he boasted that the Chinese have agreed to purchase up to US $50 billion in agricultural exports during “Phase One” of the trade deal and described the current Sino-American relationship as a “love fest.” Will concessions on Taiwan be included in “Phase Two” or “Phase Three?”

In his book, The Art of the Deal, Trump argues that the way to make a great deal is to come to the negotiation table from a position of strength and convince the other side that you have something that they really want. Given his recent history with the Kurds and his approach to business, it appears likely that Trump might try to use the “leverage” provided by America’s support for Taiwan to seek concessions from China. This is even more likely when one considers that the president has no special affinity for Taiwan. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he never praised the island’s democracy. Rather, he accused Taiwan of stealing American jobs. Furthermore, according to Bob Woodword’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House, after complaining about America’s cumbersome defense commitments, the president reportedly asked his National Security Council, “what do we get from protecting Taiwan?”
In sum, there appears to be a good chance that Trump—a leader often described as a “transactional president”—is going to throw Taiwan under the bus. That means that the leadership cohort in Taipei—an administration that often seems incapable of anticipating predictable foreign policy problems—needs to get prepared. At a minimum, it needs to get to work and devise strategies that might help the small democracy offset the ramifications of any major reset in its relationship with the US. Adopting a more pragmatic approach toward relations with the Chinese mainland ought to be at the top of this list.

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