by Brian Hioe
WHEN TAIWAN directly appeals to the “international world,” more often than not, Taiwan only has America in mind. In this sense, what Taiwan understands as the “international world” is oftentimes actually just America, to the exclusion of everything else.
However, one also often has the sense that Taiwan’s understanding of America is highly lacking. This has occurred in the past month, seeing as in an ironic turn of events, two individuals that Taiwan has been happy to deem longtime “friends of Taiwan” in the past now have leading positions in the Trump administration, John Bolton and Peter Navarro.
And so, particularly in the case of John Bolton, some in Taiwan have celebrated an individual that others have deemed “the second most dangerous American”—second only to his boss, Donald Trump—as possibly heralding the “American government most supportive of Taiwan in history”, as the title of a recent Storm Media article went. These are disappointing responses, yet not too surprising.
Bolton and Navarro Signs of the Incoherence and Irrational Hawkishness of the Trump Administration
ALTHOUGH BOTH Bolton and Navarro were early members of the Trump administration, their role was largely marginal during the early stages of the administration, with the central contentions of the administration focusing around the conflict between hawkish faction led by Trump advisor Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the leader of the “globalist” faction which—particularly pertinent to Taiwan—was much more conciliatory to China.
Steve Bannon (left) and Jared Kushner (right). Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
With the loss of power by both Bannon and Kushner in the past half year, with Bannon being forced out of the Trump administration and Kushner stripped of his security clearances, the Trump administration has seen a reshuffling of personnel. Yet this does not mean that the Trump administration will stabilize either, seeing as other casualties of reshuffles include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor HR McMaster, who were viewed as stabilizing forces on the Trump administration that attempted to keep the Trump administration to the status quo of international affairs, even if this was frequently unsuccessful.
Many in Taiwan did not anticipate that the Trump administration would radically break with the norms of international diplomacy, largely taking the view that the Trump administration would behave much like a traditional Republican would, and thinking as a result that individuals thought of as “friends of Taiwan” could be counted on to keep the Trump administration stable. Before comments by Trump suggesting that he might use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in negotiations with China, this was how the Trump-Tsai call was originally perceived—as stepping up support for Taiwan in the way that the Republican party was viewed as traditionally supportive of Taiwan.
But with the ascension of Peter Navarro and John Bolton, perhaps now Taiwan should see how truly unreliable its self-proclaimed allies truly are. Unfortunately, for many, this has not happened, with both instead seen as longtime “friends of Taiwan.”
As a key economic advisor to Trump known being an anti-China hawk who is now Trump’s top economic advisor, Navarro, for example, was instrumental behind the American withdrawal from the TPP, which was precisely intended to cement American power in the Asia Pacific to counter China.
This withdrawal has thrown American client states in the Asia Pacific into a panic, leading them to ratify the TPP on their own, without American involvement. The Navarro-;ed withdrawal from the TPP is simply, then, a sign of the incoherency of the Trump administration, which may claim that it wishes to counter China but has no real sense of how to do so, in line with the general incoherency of the administration. Of course, even if the TPP has always been a trade agreement likely benefit the internationally wealthy at the expense of all others, Taiwan has unsuccessfully sought entrance to the TPP in the past, in hopes of cementing a closer relationship with the US and other Asia Pacific countries.
Similarly, Navarro is seen as responsible for the ludicrously high tariffs that American intends to impose on steel and aluminum as a way to punish China, despite that this will probably affect American allies more than anyone else, and threatens to drag America into a trade war. This is again due to the illogical nature of the Trump administration. Despite past claims by Navarro to support Taiwan, Taiwan is among the eight nations who will most severely be affected by the tariffs—and China is not one of those eight countries.
Again, this is a sign of Navarro’s incoherent understanding of rather basic economics, something that economists have called attention to in the past. China experts, too, have been highly critical of Navarro’s commentary on China when he is not a China expert in any sense of the term.
Nonetheless, there even those who would attempt to find logic in the Trump administration’s irrationality. This can be seen in claims that the Trump administration simply hopes to negotiate a better deal with the TPP, and so TPP withdrawal was part of some grand plan by Trump.
Navarro looking on as Trump signs orders withdrawing America from the TPP on January 23, 2017. Photo credit: White House
Yet it was America who stood to benefit the most from the TPP to begin with, at the expense of other nations, as observed in that in the past year of negotiations by TPP member countries following America’s withdrawal from the TPP, some of the key provisions America pushed for, particularly in the realm of copyright protections, were removed.
And in general, the Trump administration should have long proven by now that it does not know what it is doing, either in terms of domestic policy or foreign affairs. The time for undue blind faith is long past.
In line with such blind faith, there are even those who claim inclusion of Taiwan in the countries to be targeted by American tariffs is a way of punishing Taiwan for having too close relations to China. This would simply be confusing wishful thinking for reality and idealizing America in the loftiest of terms. There, too, is something slavish in attempting to talk one’s self into believing that economic measures which will hurt Taiwan, due to putting America first, are actually aimed at Taiwan’s greater good.
This level of idealization of America is taken a whole other level with the view that John Bolton as National Security Advisor will steer the Trump administration towards pro-Taiwan policies. Again, this is a failure by many in Taiwan to understand how the international world, or even much of America, has reacted to Bolton’s appointment. This is neither a failure of liberal politics, either, as some have criticized liberal reactions to the Trump-Tsai phone call, seeing as reactions have revolved around justified fears that Bolton will drag the US into a series of international wars or could even start nuclear war with North Korea.
After all, to be frank, it is not simply that John Bolton is simply opposed to China in rational terms, rightly seeing China as an international danger, as some seem to believe him to be. Rather, Bolton is an irrational hawk. Bolton has in the past decade advocated going to war with Iraq, Iran, Russia, and North Korea, irrespective of the consequences in terms of loss of lives, and even when hypothetical American conflicts in Iran, Russia, and North Korea could involve the use of nuclear weapons.
Bolton is also a known propagator of conspiracy theories, as observed in his apparent belief that there was a covert conspiracy of Muslims to undermine the US government from within during the War on Terror, and possible belief that US president Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim. Bolton, then, is hardly a credible voice on international affairs or much of anything else, but he has risen to the top of the Trump administration anyhow. And what does it mean for Taiwan, which claims that it is a politically progressive country and also wishes to build ties with Southeast Asian countries with high Muslim populations to wean itself off of economic overreliance on China, to place its faith in an individual like Bolton?
Indeed, in recent times, despite North Korea indicating willingness to sit down at the negotiating table, Bolton opposed this and seemed determined to instead use force. Although war would no doubt have cost a great many American lives, it must be kept in mind that Bolton was largely playing games with the lives of the millions of South Koreans and North Koreans.
Notably, South Korea is largely an American client state. Control of South Korea’s military reverts to America in wartime and South Korea finances much of the American troop presence on its soil.
But America has seen fit to demand a further extractive relation of South Korea under the Trump administration, as observed in that Trump demanded South Korea pay more of its share for defense otherwise it would consider withdrawing troops from costly American bases in South Korea. Under Bolton, America illustrates a disregard for Korean life altogether, not to mention its own troops. Should this not raise fears, also, for Taiwan?
Now, Bolton has his sights on China. And so fears that Taiwan could be used as a bargaining chip or instrumental pawn by the Trump administration should again be raised. Yet somehow, Bolton has instead been idealized as a “friend of Taiwan.”
Again, Taiwan oftentimes has its eyes set only on America when claiming that it wants to appeal to the international world, while at the same time, utterly failing to understand either America or the international world. This would be another case in point. What it does it mean, then, for Taiwan to embrace even the likes of John Bolton, whom some fear will embroil the world in no less than nuclear war?
Other Recent Moves by America do not Indicate any Sea Change in the US-Taiwan Relation
IN REALITY, American support of Taiwan by Navarro, Bolton, or others is simply a way to oppose China, without any true regard for Taiwan. Claims to support Taiwan’s democracy are really only to oppose China. However, at the same time, one expects idealization of America to continue in Taiwan.
Though some may point to reports of recent multi million dollar arms deals signed between Taiwan and America as signs of American support of Taiwan and America coming to reason, arms deals should almost never be taken as indicating permanent shifts in Taiwan policy in absence of more concrete policy actions. When it comes to arms deals, Taiwan is too often grasping at straws for signs of support with arms deals from America and magnifies their importance.
On that front, the importance of the Taiwan Travel Act is too often also exaggerated, with the claim that this represents a significant increase in American support of Taiwan when in reality, this simply expands America’s diplomatic repertoire vis-a-vis Taiwan. Indeed, America was the one that decided high-level visits of Taiwanese and American government officials were not to take place to begin with, a policy that was totally self-imposed.
While it took a long and hard struggle to pass the Taiwan Travel Act by Taiwanese-American lobbying groups in the United States is hardly a sign of the significance of the Taiwan Travel Act, and that passing it represents any sea change in US-Taiwan relations that in the present political climate it has now been passed. It oftentimes is simply the desire of Taiwanese-American lobbying groups that the passage of the act represents a significant change because they put so much time and energy into pushing for its passage.
Although some cite statements by American government officials, including claims by former AIT chair William Stanton that the Taiwan Travel Act represent no less than de facto American recognition of Taiwan, or praise of Taiwanese democracy by American Representative Ed Royce, this is taking rather meaningless statements from America made in the services of diplomacy far too seriously. Would American elected officials or members of its diplomatic establishment ever candidly admit to cases in which America is acting against Taiwan’s interest? It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which they would.
And while China has launched a great deal of invective against the act, this does not indicate its significance either. China responds to even vague signs of closer US-Taiwan ties with the harshest of invective. To think that something is important because China condemns it, in fact, leads to inaccurate assessments regarding what are truly significant diplomatic moves that China is worried about and diplomatic moves that China is not worried about. This may be the tactical utility of continual, never-ending Chinese invectives against Taiwan.
To begin with, American and Taiwanese government officials never had to publicly meet to exchange information no more than Ma Ying-Jeou and Xi Jinping needed to meet in Singapore to exchange information during the Ma-Xi meeting. And so passage of the Taiwan Travel Act simply adds a new move to the US-Taiwan diplomatic repertoire to signal American support of Taiwan in international affairs. But this move has not yet been put into use. Meetings between American and Taiwanese government officials at any level seem unlikely to have any real impact in international affairs if they do not occur on a level as to supersede the Trump-Tsai phone call, that is, through a physical meeting between Trump and Tsai.
In such a case, given international reactions following the Trump-Tsai phone call, Taiwan should carefully question whether it wants to hitch its fortunes to the Trump administration. This is particularly the case, seeing as that while the Trump-Tsai phone call took place before the Trump administration had taken off, but after Trump had won presidential elections. Given the current scandals of the Trump administration regarding possibly collaboration by the Trump campaign with Russian election interference, not one, but two sex scandals, and mass protests regarding school shootings in America as Republicans double down on gun rights, it is not impossible that Trump may not actually make it through even one term. Does Taiwan want to hitch its fortunes to the Trump administration, given this?
Yet in general, one expects idealization of Trump, Bolton, and Navarro alike to continue among many, without realizing that these individuals perceived as “longtime friends of Taiwan” are not simply unreliable, but are in fact highly dangerous partners for Taiwan. Somehow, by virtue of having risen to high government positions in America, the most powerful nation in the world, the Trump administration will be viewed as having the semblance of greater logic in its actions when there is simply no logic present, just irrationality.
Taiwan has traditionally placed a great deal of blind faith in America, after all. It needs to be remembered that America has indeed historically proven both an unreliable and dangerous partner for Taiwan, not only backing the KMT for decades, but also seeing fit to suspend Taiwan in a state of diplomatic limbo for decades, and now continuing to use Taiwan as a pawn in geopolitical contestation with China
Such would be nothing new for American empire. But those advocating Taiwanese independence—in spite of having been persecuted by the America-backed KMT for decades—are sometimes surprisingly slow to pick up on that America itself has historically sold out Taiwan when Taiwan is most in need of aid. Present times are no different.