If there is a country in Asia that ought to be encouraged by the first 15 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s Taiwan. Even before taking office, Trump accepted an unprecedented phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen and, perhaps out of ignorance, questioned the 40-year-old one-China policy that is the basis for U.S. relations with Beijing. Since then, Trump’s administration has approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan and Trump signed legislation encouraging more official visits between the two countries. John Bolton, his recently installed national security adviser, is one of the most pro-Taiwan figures in Washington.
Outside the administration, there appears to be a sea change in U.S. opinion about the Communist regime in Beijing. The increasing authoritarianism and nationalist belligerence of Chinese President Xi Jinping are taken by many as proof that the long- standing American approach of encouraging expansive economic and political commerce with China has been a failure — and Taiwan looks like a beneficiary. The Taiwan Travel Act was approved in Congress by a unanimous voice vote.
Oddly, however, few people in Taipei appear to be celebrating. On a visit to the country this month with a delegation organized by the American Enterprise Institute, I heard instead a deep sense of caution and wariness about relations with the United States. Even America’s closest and most dependent allies, it seems, feel the need to back off from the chaos and unpredictable policy zigzags they see in the White House.
“This administration is still wait-and-see,” said Chiou I-Jen, a former Taiwanese national security adviser. “We have a feeling that the United States is trying to review the so-called engagement strategy [with Beijing], but we don’t know the results. We need to know more about what kind of policy will replace the engagement policy.”
A lot of the confusion stems from Trump, who quickly reversed his initial questioning of Taiwan’s status and embraced Xi, over whom he regularly fawns. Taiwanese officials note that Trump speedily signed the travel act on March 16. Yet when Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong duly turned up in Taipei a few days later, sources said, Trump was infuriated, demanding to know why he had not been informed of a visit that was bound to irritate Xi.
Trump is not the only cause for caution. Like a lot of leaders in Asia, Taiwan’s are also reacting to China’s growing power and its willingness to assert it. They’d like to take advantage of the climate in Washington and the leverage of friends such as Bolton, several senior officials told us. But — even though Tsai’s ruling party is pro-independence — they do not want to be blamed by China for “making trouble,” as one put it. One longtime Taiwan observer called it “battered wife syndrome.”
As it is, Tsai’s government is under considerable pressure from Beijing because of her refusal to ratify the “1992 consensus,” which says that China and Taiwan agree they are part of one country. Xi’s government has cut back tourist travel and some trade across the Taiwan Strait and conducted fake-news campaigns against the government through social media. Tsai has responded by trying to diversify Taiwan’s trade toward Southeast Asia and by modestly increasing defense spending.
That hasn’t changed much. The reality is that, in comparison with a decade ago, Taiwan has far less wherewithal to fend off Beijing, both militarily and otherwise. Tsai’s predecessor, the pro-Beijing Ma Ying-jeou, oversaw a vast expansion of economic ties with the mainland over a near-decade in office while deliberately allowing the military to atrophy.
Now, in many respects, Taiwan already resembles a Chinese province. Thirty years ago, its economy nearly rivaled the mainland’s in size; now it is smaller than that of six provinces. Forty percent of its exports go to China or Hong Kong, and more than 1 million Taiwanese are working in China. With wages on the island stagnant, there is a steady brain drain to the mainland, shrewdly encouraged by Beijing.
The principal remaining source of Taiwanese difference can be glimpsed in the center of Taipei, where amid glittering outlets of European fashion houses and a towering Tiffany & Co. stands the Eslite bookstore, a vast emporium of free expression where the more than 300,000 titles in multiple languages include not just U.S. bestsellers and histories documenting the crimes of Mao Zedong but also critiques of Taiwan’s postwar ruler Chiang Kai-shek. As even a brief visit makes clear, Taiwan has become one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia; in the 2018 world press freedom ranking released last week, it stood three places above the United States.
Tsai sees that as her most powerful defense. “She understands that democracy is very important,” said Chiou. Another official close to the president put it more bluntly: “Without democracy, we cannot survive.”
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