This is the second part of a two-part commentary. The first part can be found here.
The most robust indication of American support for Taiwan has perhaps come in the form of the strongest U.S. government statements we have ever seen critical of the PRC and supportive of Taiwan. A rhetorical turning point was the introduction to the unclassified version of the U.S. Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy of 2018.
It was the first new U.S. national defense strategy in 10 years, and it was the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the government had said in an official public document that its preoccupation with terrorism was over and that the greatest challenge was now the PRC:
“Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security. China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea… It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model…”
Since then, most members of the Trump administration have been repeatedly critical of the PRC, often sharply so, and equally positive toward and supportive of Taiwan. Secretary of State Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Esper, Esper’s predecessor General Mattis, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and many at lower levels have all publicly adopted a tough line toward the PRC. The only notable exception at the top level under President Trump apparently continues to be Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin, a former investment banker who remains a so-called “panda hugger” and appears to have an influence on policy that exceeds his Treasury portfolio.
The overall thrust of administration statements on Taiwan has in any case been exceptionally positive. This should serve as an important reminder that when a president is elected, we are also selecting those key individuals around the president who will often initiate, shape, and alter policies.
What does President Trump really think?
President Trump's views are more difficult to assess because his messages on the PRC and Xi Jinping (習近平), its leader, have run both hot and cold, although they have been a lot colder since the outbreak of the Wuhan virus. As early as 1990, in a Playboy magazine interview, he praised China for its crackdown on protestors in Beijing in 1989: "When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength… That shows you the power of strength.” We need to recall as well, however, that Henry Kissinger also justified Tiananmen as necessary, despite the fact that hundreds of protesters, if not more, were killed.
In contrast, while running for president, Mr. Trump said, “China is raping our country,” and “They’re ripping us left and right,” but he also said, “I love China” because he had made so much money in deals with them. The thrust of his remarks at that time was that the United States needed to be as tough as the PRC.
Trump praised Xi for extending his term as the PRC’s leader for life in 2018 and in November 2019 described Xi as “an incredible guy” and “a friend of mine” while expressing reluctance to sign a human rights bill on Hong Kong for fear it would upset his trade deal with Xi. Following the outbreak of the Wuhan virus, he repeatedly praised China's handling of the pandemic until it swamped the U.S., after which he accused it of “mass worldwide” killing because of its “incompetence” in handling the virus.
It is difficult not to conclude that when Trump praised the PRC or Xi, his approach was largely transactional, a barely disguised effort to get the bilateral trade deal that he thought would guarantee his second term as president. This is consistent with John Bolton’s view in his recent White House memoir "The Room Where It Happened."
Based on personal experience as a former director of Egyptian and North African affairs at the State Department (2001-2003), I am no great admirer of Ambassador Bolton, who tried to halt the negotiations State had undertaken with the strong backing of President George W. Bush to win compensation from Libya for the families of the 270 victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The negotiations ultimately succeeded and paved the way for Libya’s eventual elimination of its weapons of mass destruction programs, something we sensed would be possible early on in the talks. A hard-line is not always the best line of approach.
However, Ambassador Bolton’s comments on President Trump’s approach to China and Taiwan ring true, especially since so much of his memoir reads like a recording of the detailed notes he kept. So it is easy to believe that in a conversation with Xi, Trump endorsed the mass incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang and compared the relative importance of Taiwan and China to the difference in size between the tip of his pen and his White House desk.
President Trump has clearly not shown the same enthusiasm for Taiwan apparent among his key officials. At the same time, however, he has not stopped initiatives generated by his top appointees to strengthen U.S. relations with the country. When we elect someone president, we also elect the administration the president will establish.
Former Vice President Biden’s record on China and Taiwan is also mixed
From a Taiwan perspective, former Vice President Joe Biden’s record is also rather mixed. As detailed by Yang Kuang-shun in his excellent analysis “Joe Biden’s Record on China and Taiwan,” run by The Diplomat on March 6, Biden has generally supported the status quo in Taiwan. He was one of the 90 Senators who in 1979 voted for the Taiwan Relations Act but has been reluctant to go further. He opposed, for example, the 1999 Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA), which was designed to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation and increase arms sales.
Vice President Biden has also always been very much a proponent of the failed U.S. policy of “engagement” and “cooperation” with China. His campaign got off to a bad start in May last year when he downplayed any PRC trade threat: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man… They’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what: they’re not competition for us.” In the wake of the backlash that followed, Biden has adopted a decidedly more critical position on China.
In a presidential primary debate on February 25, Biden called Xi a “thug” who “has a million Uighurs in ‘reconstruction camps,’ meaning concentration camps.” He also criticized Xi’s handling of Hong Kong, saying, “This is a guy who is — doesn’t have a democratic, with a small D, bone in his body.” When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was reelected on January 11, Biden was the first Democrat presidential candidate to extend congratulations to her and express support for strengthening U.S.-Taiwan ties.
Taiwan has no choice but to wait and see who wins, but it also needs to hedge its bets. While continuing to maintain excellent contact with its friends in the Trump administration and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, Taiwan also needs to reach out to the Biden camp, including those who will likely play a key role in a Biden administration should he win.
Bear in mind that if Biden wins, many of the possible candidates for positions in his administration may come from the hundred U.S. academics, diplomats, businessmen, and retired military officers who signed a letter in The Washington Post on July 3 of last year titled “China is Not an Enemy.” The letter stated, “We do not believe Beijing is an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere.”
In my view, they were wrong then and they are wrong now. Taiwan is fortunate that most of Congress, the military and intelligence communities, and the American public do not share this view.
William A. Stanton is vice president of National Yang-Ming University. He previously served from August 2017 to July 2019 as a professor at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. Dr. Stanton previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for Global Affairs. Dr. Stanton previously served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).