The View from Taichung: Trump and Xi Meeting: Much Ado at Mar-a-Lago

Taiwan Navy Kang Ding class frigate with S70C helicopter (Ministry of National Defense website)

As Presidents Trump of the US and Xi of China met this week in Florida, a tsunami of anxious commentary crested in the media. Writing in the Washington Post, political scientist Daniel Drezner thundered that Trump knows nothing and that "he and Kushner will therefore sell off core national interests and investments at cut-rate prices," a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the media. Markets were said to be nervous, and investors wary.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, the Taiwan government was said to be anxiously watching. For the last couple of weeks rumors have circulated in Taipei warning that the two leaders could agree on a "fourth communique" that would redefine Taiwan's position in the US-China relationship, to the island nation's detriment. Despite attempts by knowledgeable individuals such as longtime Taiwan observer Randall Schriver to quash the rumors, they persisted into this week, when Taiwan academics also declared the possibility of a new communique to be low.

While Taipei was vigilant and President Tsai receiving constant briefings from her people, one group of people remained strangely relaxed amid the noise and fury: foreign observers with significant Taiwan experience. The News Lens published a piece collecting opinions from longtime Taiwan watchers, whose collective wisdom amounted to: relax, nothing big is going to happen.

This same split has occurred before. After the Trump-Tsai Call, when China watchers and the media exploded with errors and accusations, those of us who have lived and breathed Taiwan for years laughed, kicked back, and downed our margaritas. It was only a phone call, which changed nothing. Stop hyperventilating!

As many observers have noted, this meeting is also unlikely to result in major changes. Both men are beholden to domestic audiences and must respond to international pressures, and neither has much room to improvise on the scripts handed down to them by circumstances and history. North Korea is going to be more important on the agenda, with Taiwan relegated to pro forma language on both sides.

As if to emphasize this, the Taiwan Caucus in Congress, around 150 strong at the moment, sent the President a formal letter this week saying “…we seek to ensure that the United States continues to adhere to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the Six Assurances – cornerstones of U.S.-Taiwan policy. We also urge your administration to uphold the commitment of every president since the TRA’s passage in 1979 to continue to provide defensive weapons to Taiwan predicated on Taiwan’s demonstrated military needs, and without any prior consultation with Beijing.” This script is three decades old, and it is very reassuring to see Congress reciting it to the President.

Broad bipartisan support for Taiwan in Congress and the Executive is one of the factors keeping US Taiwan policy on the straight and narrow. Indeed far from being downgraded, Taiwan may well have received another small boost this week with Randall Schriver, long known as a friend of the Beautiful Island, likely getting a key Pentagon policy post.

Xi's trip to the US highlighted Taiwan deteriorating defense circumstances, with China's military capabilities expanding faster than the island's ability to respond to them. Eight years of neglect under the Ma Administration has left Taiwan's military facing ugly, expensive choices. Fortunately the Trump Administration is said to have an arms package ready for the island later this month, but Taiwan would be much better off if Europe's support for embattled democracies extended a bit further east than Estonia.

Despite the Trump Administration's current support for Taiwan, the future grows daily more ominous. China's slowly expanding territorial claims on the South China Sea and its surrounding nations, Taiwan, and the Senkakus are terrifying threats to regional peace. Moreover, China claims a chunk of India, and indulged in another one of its displays of characteristic childish anger over the Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang in an area which China claims.

Even if peace can somehow be maintained on China's littoral, the Himalayas remains one of the world's great unheralded flashpoints. At some point too Russia and China, currently the best of friends, are likely to have a falling out.

Wisely, the Tsai Administration is pursuing policies that will keep the US happy and bring Taiwan closer to Japan even as Japan is pushing its military further south. More than any other nation, Japan has aligned its policy with the correct position: the problem is not a specific region or island group, but Chinese expansionism itself, which requires a broad front response. Even the US has not made this linkage so publicly.

Taiwan is also cultivating India and the SE Asia nations and ramping up domestic production of badly needed weapons. The island will need to pursue all these policies with great vigor in the coming decades if it is to hold China at a distance, whatever happens at this week’s Xi-Trump meet up.