The advent of real estate tycoon and TV show host Donald Trump at the White House has created uncertainty and fear on a global scale due to the unorthodox nature of both his views and of the way of putting them across.
Initially, Taiwan might have been one of the few countries happy about his pronouncements, thanks to the president-elect unexpectedly allowing President Tsai Ing-wen to talk to him over the phone. As the United States and Taiwan have not entertained official diplomatic relations since 1979, no serving presidents of the U.S. and Taiwan since have been holding direct talks, not even over the phone.
On the outer edge of the Trump Administration, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton recently even suggested the U.S. could move troops from current bases in Japan’s Okinawa, where they are distinctly unpopular with local residents, to Taiwan.
Bolton, who has the reputation of a neo-con hawk, even said that a U.S. military presence in Taiwan would give troops “greater flexibility for rapid deployment throughout the region should the need arise.”
Such wording, written in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, must have set even more alarms ringing in Beijing, which was already angry at President Trump over the Tsai phone call, his throwing doubt on the “One China” policy, and his tirades against China over trade issues.
However, in more recent days, the Trump Administration seems to have reverted to a more “classic” U.S. foreign policy on Asia.
The “walk back” has been led by two of the most senior members of the administration, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, the oil executive appointed as Secretary of State.
During a tour of Asia, the former reaffirmed Washington’s traditional close ties to Japan and to South Korea. Mattis underlined the importance of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, which could lead to both countries becoming involved in events in their periphery, such as a Chinese military attack against Taiwan. The alliance saw some of its provisions revised in 1997, the year after China lobbed missiles in Taiwan’s direction due to its dissatisfaction with President Lee Teng-hui's election bid. China conducted several missile tests in its eastern coast between 1995 and 1996, while the U.S. sent aircraft carriers and claimed it as a precautionary measure.
Mattis also underlined Washington’s support for Japan’s claims over the Diaoyutai, the uninhabited island group under Japanese control but also claimed by China and by Taiwan.
Following the Secretary of Defense’s first official visit to Asia, his colleague at State also seemed to have chosen a route well traveled.
In written answers to questions from U.S. lawmakers, Tillerson emphasized that the Trump Administration would stand by the “Six Assurances” launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Those include promises by the U.S. not to act as a mediator between Taiwan and China, not to pressure Taipei to sit down for talks with Beijing, not to set a date for ending weapons sales to Taiwan, not to discuss the arms sales with China beforehand, not to formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over the island, and not to revise the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows the U.S. to sell defensive arms to Taiwan.
Responding to fears in Taiwan that President Trump was likely to treat the island as merely a bargaining chip in trade and other talks with China, Tillerson described the Taiwanese people as friends. The U.S. commitment to the island was both legal in nature and a moral imperative, the new Secretary of State said.
The comments by Tillerson and Mattis could mark a return to “normal” U.S. policies on Asia, with more emphasis on stability and cooperation, and less on rhetoric and vitriolic populism.
Taiwan has the most to expect from a U.S. policy which rewards its friends without pushing the region toward confrontation and conflict.
As Taiwanese governments frequently point out, Taiwan and the U.S. share common values of respect for freedom, democracy, human rights and progress. Given that Taiwan is threatened by a huge neighbor which performs weakly on most of those counts, so the U.S. should know which side its interests are on.
Taiwan is not a “troublemaker” but a force for stability and democracy. The recent comments by members of the Trump Administration, including those by Secretary of State Tillerson, seem to indicate the new U.S. government is aware of the basic facts.
Now it’s time to move on from words to deeds, with Washington showing it is willing to work in Taiwan’s favor, from action on recent congressional decisions allowing for higher-level meetings between officials of both governments to the sale of weapons and the closing of bilateral trade deals.