by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC
WHAT NOW FOR Taiwan, under a Trump presidency? With the swearing in of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, as hundreds of thousands demonstrated across America against Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and sexism, the realities of global politics are now a different ball game entirely. We now live in the age of Trump. Or the “post-Trump”, as others would have it. Not only is America’s future up in the air with a Trump presidency but, given America’s inescapable global influence, so, too, will Trump’s presidency have significant global implications—especially for Taiwan.
As was to be expected, analysts parsed Trump’s inaugural address in order to determine the future course of his future policies. But if some have understood Trump’s speech to mean a call for American withdrawal from the world in order to focus on domestic issues and still others have seen Trump’s speech as calling for increased American military intervention globally.
In his inaugural speech, Trump lashes out at “foreign industry [enriched[ at the expense of American industry”, “subsidiz[ing] the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” “defend[ing] other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own,” and “spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” This is in line with Trump’s protectionist calls for bringing back American manufacturing jobs as the bedrock of American prosperity, even if this means withdrawing from the globalized international economy, stating that “wealth of [the American] middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.”. As Trump phrases it in lurid terms, “rusted out factories [are] scattered like tombstones across the landscape of [America],” hence the need for economic revitalization through decreasing America’s overseas commitments.
Nevertheless, Trump also calls for “protect[ing] our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs”, “reinforc[ing] old alliances and form[ing] new ones”, and unit[ing] the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which [America] will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” This, however, America will accomplish “with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first”, with claims that Americans “do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone but rather to let it shine as an example”.
So, where Trump’s Asia policy is concerned, does Trump call for American withdrawal from the Asia in order to cut American military spending to revitalize America’s domestic economy? Or does he call for a renewed focus on American re-cementing its ally relationships with Asia Pacific nations in order to counteract China? Even if Trump made campaign promises to withdraw American troops from bases in Asia-Pacific countries, claiming that Asia-Pacific countries were freeloading off of America, references to the “ ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs” may be to China. Trump may suggest that a stronger stance against China is a form of America protecting its borders.
Trump’s words in fact suggest both stances, making it hard to divine a concrete stance from Trump. Very probably, claims that Trump’s inaugural speech calls for American troop withdrawal from the Asia Pacific or for America stepping up its military presence in the Asia Pacific are both mistaken. Rather, the speech is deliberately ambiguous. Reactions to how the speech is interpreted by the press and the general public will dictate the future direction of the Trump administration. In this way, the speech is both strategically ambiguous. But this speech is not merely strategically ambiguous in the service of some grand master plan on Asia by Trump either, but serves as a trial balloon for the future foreign policy course of the Trump administration.
Namely, the Trump administration has no consistent policy on many issues, except playing to the public and cater to public opinion. As Donald Trump biographers who have been following the man for decades opined both before and after 2016 American presidential elections, Donald Trump is primarily a salesman, rather than an individual with any vision of his own, and he caters to public demand. Trump’s policies may be formulated on the fundamental basis of seeking to play up to the public, in line with the man’s desire for attention and narcissistic desire to be accepted by the global elite.
The Trump administration itself contains a mix-up of individuals with such contrasting positions that it makes divining the future course of the Trump administration difficult. The Trump administration is composed of a hybrid of elements of the traditional Republican establishment and the insurgent, anti-establishment alt-Right. If there is such disunity of positions within the Trump administration, this may be a product of that Trump’s fundamental criteria for choosing individuals for public office was not their qualifications, or whether their political stances cohered with his, but their absolute loyalty to him.
One cannot expect such individuals to hold Trump in check. And one suspects individuals who dare go against Trump will probably be removed from his administration. Trump’s purported “China guru,” Peter Navarro, for example, has consistently and firmly been opposed to the idea of America bargaining away Taiwan with China for a trade deal, and opposes hypocritical American businessmen who claim to stand America’s trade interests but in reality do a large amount of backdoor business deals with China. Trump has already suggested that he is considering bargaining away Taiwan in return for trade concessions and he is precisely one of those American businessmen with shady holdings in China that Navarro detests, as evidenced in that Trump will have many conflicts of interest on Asia policy because of his many business ties in Asia. After having been appointed the head of new trade body created by Trump which he likely intends to be a significant instrument of his trade policy, if Navarro goes against Trump, one can expect him to be quickly marginalized.
And we can expect contestation between the different elements of the Trump administration on Asia policy. A recent editorial by Trump administration official John Bolton in the Wall Street Journal calling for a relocation of American bases in Okinawa to Taiwan is not at all an indicator of Trump’s plans for Taiwan with Bolton acting as Trump’s mouthpiece, but very likely a shot fired across the bow by Bolton in the internal debate over Asia policy within the Trump administration.
Who will Trump side with? This very probably depends on a combination of whichever one of the internal factions within his administration he favors the most at any given moment and what public opinion towards a political position with. Trump, ever the reality television star, plays to tune of viewer ratings more than anything else.
Trump will not be held in check by his appointees or institutional safeguards either, because his appointees were appointed on the sole basis of loyalty to him. And unlike any other past president, given his independent financial resources, ability to whip up the media, and his direct hotline to the world through Twitter, Trump can circumvent any institutional safeguards to make statements which will be taken by the world as policy even if he cannot necessarily back up words with action. The hullaballoo which surrounded Tsai’s phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen and several Tweets on the matter by Trump afterwards that provoked widespread global panic is already indicative of Trump’s ability to significantly influence global politics and shrug off institutional safeguards. And circumventing his advisors is already a known tendency of Trump. At a point in Trump’s campaign, his campaign team reportedly feared that Trump would decide his VP pick on his own, without consulting them, and announce it via Twitter.
Donald Trump supposedly writing his inaugural speech in a photo released on social media. Photo credit: Donald Trump/Twitter
Trump hardly has any master plan on Asia or other issues. Namely, Trump does not stand for any political issue, except what will allow him to get the most attention or what sounds good at any given moment. Hence the tendency of Trump to rapidly adjust his policy stances depending on the last person he talked to that some observers have noticed, even if this means statements which are complete policy reversals. This has occurred not only with regard to Trump reversing course on calls for troop withdrawal from the Asia Pacific after Trump met with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and spoke with South Korean president Park Geun-hye, but also with bizarre recent statements by Trump that he would ensure universal health care for all Americans after running on a platform which entailed dismantling Obamacare and keeping the government out of health care.
For those who claims that this is merely Trump the master manipulator at work, raising the political stakes for negotiation with a master plan in mind, this to place a great deal of blind faith in Trump which is highly irrational. When it comes to Trump, Occam’s razor applies. The simplest explanation about Trump is probably the most accurate. So very likely Trump has no clear plan for government in mind.
Video of Trump’s inaugural speech. Film credit: ABC News
That Trump’s inaugural speech led to divided verdicts on whether it was a call for American withdrawal or increased American interventionism returns to that it was deliberately ambiguous, so as to allow Trump maximum wiggle room down the line. Again, this is not because Trump has any master plan in the back of his head, but because Trump simply has no concrete political stances and he wants to keep any and all of his options open.
A recent gaffe in which Trump theatrically pointed to a stack of papers claiming that they were his business plans only for those papers to turn out to be blank is symbolic of Trump’s administration as a whole. A photo released on social media claiming to be a photo of Trump writing his inaugural speech on closer examination also shows Trump staring at what seems a blank page.
We might describe similarly the contents of Trump’s inaugural speech, which in making so many directly contradictory claims about American foreign policy was largely just a “blank page” aimed at keeping as many options open for Trump as possible while not committing to anything. But this blankness is reflective of Trump’s absence of any real political commitments or stances except whatever sounds good at the moment. As with Trump’s inaugural speech and the fact that for it mostly does not actually say anything about concrete stances while just dancing around issues, Trump’s nature as a fraud is revealed in trying to pass off a blank page for a detailed, written plan. Trump is not some master manipulator or supreme negotiator, but a fraud and conman, though one good at what he does. Trump is an emperor with no clothes, if there ever was one.
Going forward for Taiwan and other Asian Pacific nations, it will be difficult to predict the future course of Trump’s Asia policy. It could in fact be that Trump’s pliability and lack of any political experience whatsoever actually makes him easy material for experienced politicians as Tsai Ing-Wen or Shinzo Abe to manipulate. However, that same pliability makes it possible that Trump may be taken in by the overtures of individuals such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. And so Taiwan and other Asia Pacific nations caught between the two superpowers of America and China will have to tread carefully when it comes to Trump.
Where Taiwanese responses to the Trump inauguration to date are concerned, Tsai Ing-Wen has taken to Twitter on her new English language account to congratulate Trump on his inauguration, claiming that “democracy is what ties Taiwan and the US together” and that she “look[s] forward to advancing our friendship and partnership”. Former DPP chairman Yu Shyi-Kun, who is leading Taiwan’s delegation to the Trump inauguration, has stated in public comments that US-Taiwan relations are currently at their best point in history. As China’s complaints about Tsai’s previous transit stops in America in which she met with American officials, China protested against Taiwan being allowed a delegation at Trump’s inauguration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trump’s reputation in Taiwan has seen a boost, particularly after John Bolton’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal suggesting moving US bases from Okinawa to Taiwan.
But, in general, it is dangerous to think that Trump somehow has Taiwan or other nations’ best interests in mind and this mode of thinking needs to be combatted. Wishful thinking should not be confused for reality when it comes to Trump. It should be kept in mind that conmen as Trump prey most easily on those who are prone to mistaking reality for what they would like reality to be. Going forward, individuals who delude themselves into seeing the Trump administration in line with their wishful thinking may need to have their bubbles burst.