by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: White House/Public Domain
DO RECENT American actions indicate stronger support of Taiwan? Namely, American actions as of late have been unusual, with America taking the high-level step of recalling diplomatic representatives to three countries which recently broke ties with the ROC in favor of acknowledging the PRC, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama.
When Taiwan has lost diplomatic allies under the Tsai administration in the past two years, America did not issue condemnations on this level. Previously, China refrained from poaching Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies in the eight years of the Ma administration as a gesture of goodwill towards the pro-China Ma administration, but this has resumed under the Tsai administration. Five allies have broke ties under the Tsai administration to date.
At least on the surface, recalling representatives would appear to be a rather strong gesture by America, then. This is a known move of America’s diplomatic repertoire and it seems to be quite an emphatic one. But despite that America will sometimes quietly reinstates its diplomatic representatives several months later, it still proves surprising that America would go so far as to recall diplomatic representatives over Taiwan losing allies.
However, it proves necessary for Taiwan to look a gift horse in the mouth here. Many in Taiwan are sufficiently unaware of internal cleavages within the Trump administration and will simply conclude that the Trump administration is and has always been pro-Taiwan, going back to the Trump-Tsai phone call. This is hardly the case.
As a recent Washington Post op-ed by Josh Rogin rightly points out, actions beneficial to Taiwan under the Trump administration have primarily been incremental. It is simply that many in Taiwan grab onto whatever crumbs they can from America and magnify the significance of even minor American action towards Taiwan, generally seeing America actions towards Taiwan only from a Taiwan-centric perspective and failing to consider that Taiwan may only be of minor concern for America in light of larger, global concerns.
For one, who is behind such actions? As also noted in the op-ed, actions to benefit Taiwan probably have taken place at a low enough level to avoid catching the attention of President Donald Trump for fear of sudden and unpredictable reaction by Trump.
Indeed, one notes that there has been relatively sparse discussion in Taiwan of the recent op-ed published in the New York Times from a high-level Trump administration official whose name was redacted. This op-ed confirms what observers of the Trump administration from afar have long suspected, that elements in the Trump administration were attempting to counteract Trump. There has also been little discussion of reports that senior Trump administration officials such as former director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn having had to take papers off of Trump’s desk to prevent Trump from undertaking consequential moves such as unilaterally withdrawing America from international free trade agreements such as NAFTA—a matter then dropped by Trump.
If Rogin is correct, it seems more likely that these elements within the Trump administration that are pushing for American actions beneficial to Taiwan by taking advantage of Trump’s inattention to Taiwan in past months and heightened tensions between American and China by way of America’s current trade war with China than for this to be any deliberate policy by Trump. However, in general, this situation points to the lack of any coherent policy under the Trump administration and one should have little faith in these rogue elements of the Trump administration to prove a stabilizing force within the Trump administration. For one, it is probably that, now aware of these forces within his administration, Trump will seek to oust them. And actions by such members of the Trump administration in favor of Taiwan could easily be overruled by the president.
On the other hand, if actions by the Trump administration are, in fact, deliberate in nature, then Taiwan also needs to be wary. Namely, if Trump is suddenly strongly raising the issue of Taiwan, this probably simply because America is once again hoping to use Taiwan as a chess piece in its geopolitical conflict with China. Stronger actions in favor of Taiwan which fundamentally cost America little, such as temporarily withdrawing diplomatic representatives, would be primarily a means of adding pressure to China. If so, it is only coincidence that Taiwan happens to benefit from this.
Unpredictable times remain head for Taiwan, then. Yet one generally observes little commentary of recent actions by America, with public discussion primarily focused more on domestic issues.