by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: JA de Roo/CC
AS A RESULT of a recent US-Taiwan arms deal and increased tensions between the US and North Korea, an ally of China, some claim that this represents the worsening of US-China relations under the Trump administration after a period in which the Trump administration became strangely friendly with China, a country long at odds with the United States historically. This worsening of relations, then, is phrased as the “normalization” of US-China relations, a sigh of relief is breathed from many who have to lose from too friendly ties between the US and China, such as Taiwan.
At the risk of sounding like a broken alarm clock, however, this is hardly the case. Where the Trump administration is concerned, the Trump administration has long demonstrated the tendency to oscillate between the two poles of being either unusually friendly towards China or dangerously antagonistic towards China. Originally, this seemed representative of that the Trump administration has two political camps within it that are at odds with each other, the Kushner faction and the Bannon faction, which are arrayed behind the figures of Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon respectively.
The Kushner faction is pro-China on the basis of international business ties between Jared Kushner’s family and China, whereas the far-right-wing Bannon faction may view conflict with China as an inevitability in almost apocalyptic terms. But after a period in the limelight, Bannon fell from power within the Trump administration around the same time that Jared Kushner made his political ascendancy within the party. With the rise of the Kushner faction and Trump’s high-profile meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, US-China ties seemed strangely friendly, something probably not helped by China’s ability to leverage on Trump’s business interests in China.
Yet following controversy regarding Kushner’s overly pro-China ties, it seems that Trump may be backing away from Kushner now as well. Reports are conflicting whether Bannon is re-ascendent in the Trump administration or whether his fall from grace continues. But either way, it is not surprising that, as evidencing Trump’s concrete tendency to oscillate between two extreme poles in his China policy, that Trump has swung back towards policies antagonistic towards China.
It by no means the political establishment reasserting itself that US-China ties have broken down and the US approved an arms sale to Taiwan which had previously been on hold, then. Firstly, it is overly hasty and to confuse wishful thinking for reality to conclude US-Taiwan arms sales represent the normalization of US Taiwan policy. Taiwan was not sold all of the weapons it asked for as part of the arms sale and the arms purchase notably did not include any of the weapons in the US arsenal which could potentially shift the balance of power in terms of Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from Chinese invasion.
As such, at best we can only conclude from the arms sale that this is a temporary extension of the US-Taiwan status quo—not the permanent normalization of US-Taiwan relations in a manner which will not necessitate further worry about abrupt shifts in US Taiwan policy that are still a possibility. Another political turnabout by Trump is not impossible, given Trump’s unpredictability. Worry-mongering about the potential future actions of a Trump administration may accomplish little, but calls of caution are certainly better than being caught unprepared because one assumes a maturation in the Trump administration’s actions out of a sense of wishful thinking.
Second, it should in fact be worrisome that the dividing issue which has deteriorated relations between Trump and China is North Korea and North Korea only. North Korea’s nuclear threat looms large in the American imagination, with the view that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are apocalyptic, world-ending weapons at the rogue nation’s disposal, even when one oftentimes has reason to be skeptical of the actual threat North Korea presents based on that its missile tests fail more often than not and North Korea would not be able to get its nuclear weapons anywhere without usable delivery systems. Any nation with so-called “weapons of mass destruction” tends to be seen similarly in the American imagination, oftentimes as a justification for future foreign intervention.
Very probably, this is how Trump sees North Korea. As the Trump administration was counting on China in order to talk North Korea, out of its use of nuclear weapons, as China is North Korea’s only ally and North Korea is in many ways China’s client state. This has not been successful, and so this is what primarily has led to the deterioration of US-China relations.
Obviously, then, the failure to grasp the complex relation of the United States and China on many fronts outside of the one issue of North Korea should be prove enough that there has been no “maturation” on the Trump administration, but that the Trump administration continues to see foreign policy between nation-states as largely hinging on single issues. Likewise, if the North Korea threat looms so large in the imagination of the Trump administration, there is the possibility that the Trump administration will resort to any form of bargaining it sees as necessary in order to forestall the North Korean threat.
Could this involve potential compromises to China, such as a revival of the specter of signing away Taiwan to China in return for China reigning in North Korea? Such speculations are certainly quite premature, but if North Korea is China’s client state in the Asia-Pacific, which often acts as China’s id in threatening western countries or Asia Pacific allies of America, China oftentimes views Taiwan similarly as an American client state which threatens China at America’s behest, as a “dagger pointed at the heart of China.” One can see how North Korea and Taiwan might be seen as equivalent in a fair trade. Taiwan should take careful note of the Trump administration’s handling of the North Korea issue, then.