What are the most notable developments in the Trump administration in terms of policy toward Taiwan? What lies behind these moves?
This is a great place to start because it is important to put in context where we are in terms of U.S.- Taiwan ties, but also China-Taiwan ties. There is this common view that Trump has adopted this very revolutionary approach to Taiwan, and that is simply not the case. His approach to Taiwan has followed more or less the playbook of a lot of previous presidents with some notable differences: Before he was even inaugurated, he had a phone call with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, which raised questions about whether or not he was going to adopt a very different approach to Taiwan. In fact, Trump burned his hand on a hot stove because after inauguration in 2017, he did not do much on Taiwan for almost two years. This is largely because he felt that U.S. interests were best served by negotiating with Mainland, specifically negotiating the trade agreement that was concluded in January 2020. For the first two to two and a half years of the Trump administration, they did not do much on Taiwan because the message had come down from Trump: he did not want to do anything on Taiwan that would upset the relationship with mainland China and his personal ties to Xi. So, Trump’s Taiwan policy was actually more accommodating than evolutionary.
Finally, in 2019, you begin to have a few glimmers of a different approach to Taiwan. In the Department of Defense report on the Indo-Pacific, they referred to Taiwan as a country, which is inconsistent with four decades of U.S. policy. They specifically say that Taiwan is a member of the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is new but not very different from the Obama administration when Taiwan was talked about as an important partner in the Asia Pacific pivot or the rebalancing strategy. There were a couple of high-profile arms sales from the U.S. to Taiwan, in particular, the F-16Vs, which was the most substantial arms sales to Taiwan since probably 1992. So that is very different. Also, sending the HHS cabinet secretary was notable, but previous administrations going back to 1992 have sent cabinet secretaries; in the Obama administration, the U.S. sent the head of the EPA.
So Trump's approach has not been revolutionary at all—it has been incremental, with several moves in 2020. If anything, they talk a big game because they have adopted such a strong policy of pushing back against China and countering China. Their Taiwan policy often gets framed as that. In fact, when you see Republican members or supporters of Trump on Capitol Hill talking about Taiwan, it is more about penalizing China, pushing back against China than it is doing things for Taiwan that are in the interests of the U.S. and Taiwan.
How has Trump differed from previous presidents in the U.S.’s commitment to the One China Policy?
Overall, he has adhered to the One China Policy more than he has differed from it. What the Trump administration is trying to do is to say that they are taking actions to support Taiwan that are less attentive to Chinese reactions. In other words, they are willing to do things even though China is going to get upset. However, nothing they have done has completely overturned the One China Policy. What they are trying to do is push the boundaries of the one China policy and be more tolerant of blowback from China. Previous administrations did the same thing.
What did U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar’s visit to Taiwan signal to the Chinese? How did Beijing react to the visit?
What was interesting is that Beijing’s reaction was actually relatively modest. Of course, there were very strong words and a lot of criticism of the Trump administration from China, but there was not any sort of material penalty, cancelling dialogues to high level visits. Taiwan itself was not penalized because Beijing understood there was a practical, functional reason for Azar to go—the fact that Taiwan had done so well with containment and mitigation of COVID. Now, the Trump administration sent Azar more as a political signal than to actually learn from Taiwan about dealing with COVID, though I wish we would have. It was more of an action to demonstrate that the U.S. can be tough with China and can do things even though China does not like it. It is more reflective of our politics in the United States and the Trump administration during this electoral campaign, trying to position themselves as tough on China. Otherwise, why did they send him in the middle of a global pandemic when nobody is traveling? Clearly, the motivation was political and it was to look tough on China.
What impact does declassifying the Six Assurances have on the Beijing-Washington-Taipei triangle?
There is not much impact. To me, it was more of a diplomatic stunt than anything else. When I was senior director at the NSC, I was well aware of the six assurances and had it printed out and pasted on my desk. They were as operative a part of our policymaking as the Taiwan Relations Act and the Three Communiqués. For anybody in the driver's seat of the US China relationship, the Six Assurances have always been operative. I don't know of any instances in recent years, in the Obama administration or in the Bush administration, when they have been violated. The effort to declassify the memos was to make more formal of the Six Assurances. But did they need to be made more formal? The Trump administration was trying to get out in the public record the idea in the Six Assurances that a reduction in arms sales as specified in the 1982 Communiqué to communicate was linked to the security environment. The message was, “Beijing, as you increase military pressure on Taiwan, the US feels legitimate in increasing its arms sales to Taiwan.” Now, I encourage people to take a look at the declassified memos, because among the Six Assurances, some of them are in the future tense and some of them are in the present perfect tense. However, the Trump administration portrays the Six Assurances as all being future tense, when in fact, they're not. In other words, by revealing the content of the memos, it creates a question about how one applies the Six Assurances, and opening up a can of worms that is not going to be helpful for the U.S. position at this time.
There are differing views on whether greater American diplomatic and military support for Taiwan will deter Chinese aggression or provoke China into testing American resolve. Where should the balance lie?
There's no set answer to that question. A balance by its definition is something that requires calibration and recalibration depending on how the variables move. You would have to know what's going on in the US? What's going on in Taiwan? What's going on in China? For example, if the U.S. felt the anxiety in Beijing was increasing and Beijing was starting to prepare for some sort of limited military action, or perhaps there were signs that Beijing doubted the strength of the U.S. commitment, then the US could make some declaratory statements that would clarify U.S. policy. It is a very dynamic situation, which is why there have been constant addendums and clarifications of the content of the One China Policy, in order to take into account different actions, whether it's provocations from the mainland or provocations from Taiwan.
How would you rate Trump’s current performance in dealing with Taiwan and China? How is he maintaining this balance?
The challenge that the Trump administration faces is the inconsistency of their approach to Taiwan. For the first two years, the message from the president was “don't touch the Taiwan issue because I don't need any problems on the Taiwan issue. It matters more to Beijing than it does to me, Donald Trump, and I've got a trade deal with Beijing.” Then suddenly, once the trade deal with Beijing is done, and COVID comes out and Trump is facing political problems during an election year. He suddenly changes his stance to be tough on the Taiwan issue. It raises questions in the minds of policymakers: How much does Trump really care? Among specialists in Washington, DC, one of the worst kept secrets is how indifferent Trump is about Taiwan. He doesn't really care about Taiwan, nor does he really get the issue. But if it's a vehicle for him to be tough on China, then that's good. It's no coincidence that once the U.S.-China trade deal was done, once COVID happened, that the Trump administration is finally going forward with a variety of different arms sales to Taiwan. Trump sees Taiwan as a bargaining chip instead of something that is in the U.S. interest.
Should Biden become the next president, will he revise or adjust the current administration’s Taiwan policy?
I can't predict the future and certainly can't predict Biden's Taiwan policy. What I would say is that given the amount of volatility there has been on the Taiwan question and the inconsistency in Trump's statements and actions, it will be important for the next administration to try and level things out and reset the four corners of the One China Policy in a way that reflects the reality of current situation. For example, there should be policies that reinforce deterrence across the Taiwan Strait and ensure that the situation remains stable. That would help dissuade anyone in mainland China who thinks that the United States would be willing to negotiate away Taiwan. It may involve the U.S. looking more creatively at how within the One China framework to develop a more robust relationship with Taiwan. The pillar that is most underdeveloped is the economic relationship, and we should be ready to expand trade and investment which would help America and be good for Taiwan at the same time. That would reduce Taiwan’s vulnerability to Mainland China. The U.S. will have to stay attentive to the gathering military threat to Taiwan to determine what future arms sales are going to look like. But I would expect that arms sales would continue because the threat is substantial.
<b>Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas</b>