Could an unscripted phone call between Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping greenlight a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? Given Trump’s impulsive nature, that chilling scenario — and its baleful ramifications — can’t be ruled out.
A Chinese attack on Taiwan, especially one with U.S. acquiescence, would roil East Asia. It would cause the United States’ Asian allies, from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Australia, to suspect Washington’s commitment to their security, and would embolden North Korea. If successful, the invasion would crush an Asian democracy and propel China’s naval interests far into the western Pacific, setting the scene for Chinese domination of the region for years to come.
Since China’s Communist revolution in 1949, the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security has been the main reason why China has not attempted an invasion. China’s government claims that Taiwan is part of China, even as Taiwan has had its own government, army and economic and political system. Since the late 1980s, Taiwan has transformed itself from an authoritarian state into a vibrant democracy, and China’s demands that Taiwan come to heel have fluctuated from shrill to moderate and back again.
To threaten Taiwan, China has deployed missiles in Fujian province, which is 110 miles from Taiwan’s coast. China’s military modernization has focused on creating the conditions for a successful invasion, including the development of aircraft carrier-killer missiles to ward off the U.S. Navy. China has also meddled in Taiwan’s political system, churning out an endless stream of fake news from bots and trolls that swarm Taiwan’s unregulated social media.
To entice Taiwan, China has offered a “one country, two systems” formula to the island’s people, promising to maintain their capitalist and democratic system. However, given China’s string of broken promises in Hong Kong, which was also offered a “one country, two systems” model, uniting with Beijing has zero traction in Taiwan.
Since rising to the top of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi has intimated that he believes taking over Taiwan would be the enterprise to cement his legacy. In a saber-rattling speech on Jan. 1, Xi announced that China would not “abandon the use of force” when it came to Taiwan and that China was prepared to take “all necessary measures” to unite with the island. Xi reiterated these threats on Oct. 13 in a speech in Nepal, warning that attempts to separate China would result in “crushed bodies, shattered bones.” Chinese sources have observed that the desire to be the Chinese leader that absorbs Taiwan played a role in Xi’s decision to force through an amendment of China’s constitution last year that allows him to serve as president for life. The Chinese Communist Party will observe its 100th anniversary in 2021. What better way to celebrate the centenary than with a unifying war?
In 1979, the United States dropped its recognition of Taiwan in favor of recognizing the People’s Republic of China. Nonetheless, successive U.S. governments have supported the island. The Taiwan Relations Act mandates U.S. support for Taiwan’s defense. Since the 1980s, the United States has sold Taiwan tens of billions worth of weapons.
Inside the Trump administration, there remains significant support for Taiwan. Newly appointed deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger and Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs relations, are just two of the well-informed and stalwart backers of the island’s security and safety.
But what about Trump? As he is on issues throughout the world, the president remains a wild card. Soon after the 2016 election but before he was inaugurated, Trump took a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. But at other times, observers have worried that Taiwan could become a hostage in trade negotiations with China.
There is some indication that his staff understands how dangerous the president could be. In late August, just weeks before Trump fired him, national security adviser John Bolton declassified a presidential memo on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan written on Aug. 17, 1982, by then-President Ronald Reagan. In the memo, Reagan concerns himself with a communique signed that very day by the United States and China that on paper seemed to commit the United States to decreasing its arms sales to Taiwan. Reagan wanted subsequent presidents to understand that the United States should not waver in its support of the island. Reagan directed subsequent presidents to assure that “Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.”
Sources inside the Trump administration have observed that by invoking Reagan, Bolton appeared to be trying to make it more difficult for Trump to abandon Taiwan. But whether the president got the memo is anybody’s guess.