The answer might lie in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November. A free Taiwan might not be able to survive a second Trump administration.
President Trump’s policy of international retreat and disregard for allies, alongside Xi’s growing assertiveness and expansionism, put Taipei at the intersection of the two ominous trends.
While China has been pushing the limits of acceptable action, Trump has sent mixed signals, at best. Officially, the administration has a firm stand on China. The National Defense Strategy of 2018 repeatedly refers to Beijing’s militaristic and predatory behavior as a challenge that the United States needs to counteract.
The president, however, has a long track record of lavishing praise on Xi — a “friend of mine” and an “incredible guy” — and paying little attention to matters other than trade. His attacks on China’s role in the novel coronavirus pandemic look more like blame-shifting than sincere concern about Chinese authoritarianism.
The United States committed itself to protecting Taiwan when it recognized the People’s Republic of China and withdrew recognition of Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 (for which then-Sen. Joe Biden voted) aimed to ensure that Taiwan’s future is determined by peaceful means. Anything else, the TRA said, would be deemed “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” The United States vowed to “maintain the capacity” to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” of Taiwan.
That has been U.S. policy for four decades. But Trump has struck a less-than-enthusiastic tone when it comes to protecting alliances, let alone defending allies.
Trump’s abandonment of Syria’s Kurds, who had done most of the fighting and dying alongside the United States against the Islamic State, made the weakness of Washington’s commitments under Trump chillingly clear.
Trump is keenly aware that Taiwan is a mere speck when compared with the Chinese behemoth. In his recent memoir, former national security adviser John Bolton recounts Xi’s repeated efforts to convince Trump that Taiwan belongs to China, and that the relationship between the United States and China would suffer if the United States ignored that. Trump appeared to acquiesce.
As Bolton recalls, Trump would “point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, ‘This is Taiwan,’ then point to the Resolute desk and say, 'This is China.’”
Would China make a move against Taiwan? Until recently, Beijing would have been deterred by international opinion and the prospect of pushback from the United States.
But lately, Beijing has become increasingly willing to flout international views. The imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong disregards Beijing’s commitment to the “one country, two systems” principle it made in 1997, when Britain handed over the territory and China promised that Hong Kong would remain free until 2047.
Hong Kong is only one place where Beijing has shown a willingness to flex its muscle. In Xinjiang province, it has built concentration camps — it calls them reeducation camps — where it holds more than a million ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim minority, despite the world’s protestations. It’s the largest imprisonment of a religious minority since the Holocaust.
According to Bolton, during one of their meetings, Xi told Trump about the camps. The interpreter said Trump’s response was that building camps was the right thing to do. On the day that tidbit became public, Trump signed a bill aiming to punish China for abusing Uighurs.
There’s little reason to expect Trump would stand up for Taiwan out of a sense of loyalty or moral outrage.
Beyond its frontiers, China has been pushing against India’s border, expanding control of international waters in the South China Sea, buzzing Taiwan with fighter jets and generally seeking to expand its influence through diplomacy, finances, and intimidation.
If China decided to make a military play for Taiwan, Trump, who talks a hawkish game but doesn’t always walk it, might be persuaded to stand up to China. But from what we have seen, his instinct would cry out against U.S. involvement for a small ally, especially if it would spoil relations with a powerful trading partner.
As for Biden, he is hardly a hawk. There are no guarantees for Taiwan regardless of the election’s outcome, which is why Taipei is rushing to bolster its military capabilities. But Biden is committed to the status quo in Taiwan; he has spoken out forcefully against Xi’s treatment of Uighurs and in support of Taiwan’s “thriving democracy.” He intends to return U.S. foreign policy to the pre-Trump track of safeguarding U.S. alliances and valuing democracy. That stance alone would give Beijing pause before acting against Taiwan.
All considered, Biden looks like a safer bet than Trump for the survival of Taiwan’s independence from the increasingly aggressive regime in Beijing.