The paradox of the Trump administration’s Taiwan approach is that, despite the presence of pro-Taiwan officials throughout the government, the actual policy has moved only incrementally, well short of what would be a proportional response to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive diplomatic, economic and military campaign against Taiwan.
The United States’ Taiwan policy is hampered by two challenges: the lack of a comprehensive strategy and the personal resistance of President Trump. Convinced his personal friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping will yield results for the United States on either trade or North Korea, Trump has resisted more assertive moves to bolster the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, several officials said.
“This administration, from a personnel perspective, has the most hawkish Taiwan team ever,” one senior administration official told me. “But if Xi calls and complains, the president’s instinct is to defer to that because there is always some pending issue in which we want something from the Chinese.”
Since Trump’s surprise phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen before his inauguration, official U.S.-Taiwan interactions have increased somewhat, and the administration has taken public stands against many of Beijing’s actions. Last month, the White House criticized El Salvador for breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Earlier this year, the administration called out Beijing for attempting to force international airlines to scrub Taiwan from their websites.
Though the Trump administration approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan last year, there is no word of any further deals. And in June, the administration failed to send any Cabinet-level officials to the opening of the new headquarters for the American Institute in Taiwan, our de facto embassy. This is not the Taiwan policy that Trump officials such as national security adviser John Bolton have long championed.
Trump’s attitude has forced his own officials to calculate what can be done to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan ties without provoking backlash that might reach the president. That’s a tricky calculation, as State Department official Alex Wong discovered after his March visit to Taipei resulted in a strong rebuke from Trump, who was not briefed on the trip in advance.
Congress is pushing the administration to do much more. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who met the Taiwanese president last month in Los Angeles, introduced a bill this week with bipartisan support that authorizes the State Department to downgrade relations or withhold aid money to countries that abandon Taiwan under Chinese pressure.
Congress is building on legislation Trump signed (but has largely disregarded) encouraging more U.S. official travel to Taiwan, as well as a new National Defense Authorization Act that calls for enhanced military and security cooperation. Gardner said the president should understand this is not just about Taiwan but part of the greater effort to compete with China’s growing global influence.
“El Salvador is important because of Taiwan but also because of Chinese intentions in the Americas,” he said. “We make it clear that a decision on Taiwan doesn’t just affect your relationship with Taiwan, but it affects your relationship with the United States.”
Meanwhile, the United States must help Taiwan bolster its own defenses opposite China’s overwhelming military buildup. The Taiwanese government’s situation is delicate and U.S. action must avoid making Tsai’s problems worse or provoke an outright crisis. But there are still tools the United States can employ to mitigate Beijing’s strategy.
“The cross-strait military balance has already shifted fundamentally but we can never have China draw the conclusion they can attack Taiwan with impunity and achieve a political goal,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The United States should regularize arms sales to Taiwan to remove Xi’s ability to feign outrage each time. Then, the United States should increase official visits, sail more and larger ships through the Taiwan Strait, and ramp up defense of Taiwan’s continued membership in international organizations still willing to accept it.
Just this week, the small Pacific island country of Nauru stood up for Taiwan by giving visiting Chinese officials a taste of their own medicine, refusing to stamp their diplomatic passports. After Chinese officials stormed out of the recent Pacific Islands Forum, the Global Times, a state-run media outlet in China, stated, “Taiwan’s ‘independent sovereignty’ is like melting ice, and it is swimming against the dominant global tide.”
The Trump administration’s strategy should provide countries such as El Salvador and Nauru economic and diplomatic incentives to resist Chinese pressure and partner with democracies such as the United States and Taiwan.
Most importantly, Trump officials must persuade the president that defending Taiwan is not an irritant in the U.S.-China relationship. It is a test case for America’s willingness to respond to Beijing’s global aggression.