Will Trump spring ‘October surprise’ and recognize Taiwan?

The US president could conceivably ditch the 'one China' policy in a desperate attempt to get reelected

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(Wikimedia Commons photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — The scenes that have unfolded over the past few weeks at the White House and the Walter Reed National Medical Center have been pure Hollywood — and pure Donald Trump.

Everything from his departure on Marine One and the carefully staged photos of him "working" in the presidential suite at the hospital to his return to the White House was choreographed down to the last detail. They were attempts to portray the president as the leader and statesman he wants to be perceived as.

The notion we are being fed is of a president bravely fighting off COVID-19 to advance his agenda. The fact that he is keen to cultivate this perception so close to an election is no coincidence.

To some, it will seem desperate and incredulous. Yet, for many of his core voters, it will come across as patriotic and statesmanlike.

Polls suggest that Trump is struggling in his reelection campaign and, if anything, his bout of coronavirus has made his prospects of winning worse rather than better. The question now is, might he pull off a surprise between now and election day?

The concept of an "October surprise" is fairly well established in U.S. politics, with the trailing presidential candidate offering something unexpected to swing things back in their favor. Since Trump’s domestic agenda has been hugely divisive a new offering on this front might galvanize his core base but is unlikely to convince swing voters.

China challenge

His foreign policy, however, has proven more appealing. Front and center of his strategy has been taking the challenge to China.

He has directly blamed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) for the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. In addition, he has stood up to the CCP's economic bullying and has encouraged allies to do likewise.

His readiness to sanction Chinese companies and individuals has drawn support from all sides of the political divide. It has certainly appealed to a broad swath of American voters who believe in U.S. exceptionalism.

In particular, the Trump administration has shown a willingness to stand up for the interests of Taiwan. The tone was set when Trump accepted a phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) after winning his first term. It has been reaffirmed by the signing of pro-Taiwan legislation and an eagerness to sell the military equipment Taiwan needs to defend itself against the CCP threat.

Taiwan is an issue that both Republican and Democratic politicians can agree on. Equally, the notion of supporting cornerstone values such as freedom and democracy sell well to the U.S. electorate.

It is therefore not impossible that one ‘October surprise’ that Trump could pull out of his hat is full diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

End appeasement

Such a move would mean an end to the appeasement of communist China through acceptance of the so-called "one China" agenda. It would mean standing up to an authoritarian foe on the global stage and championing the values that so many Americans hold dear.

It would also reaffirm the perception of statesmanship that Trump seems so keen to promote right now. It would not be the first time he has tried to deliver a major foreign policy success during his presidency.

On his watch, the U.S. has attempted to normalize relations between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The Trump administration has, arguably, cooled tensions over North Korea and tried to reconcile Serbia and Kosovo in the Balkan region of southeast Europe.

Recognizing Taiwan is, therefore, not out of the question and could be transformational. It is likely that the U.K., India, and even the EU could follow the U.S. lead on this — even if the CCP lashes out.

Dr. Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy, has previously called the U.S. failure to stand up to China “the most systematic, significant, and dangerous intelligence failure in American history.” Recognizing Taiwan would ameliorate this somewhat.

Also, it might just swing the polls back in Trump's favor before the November election.