By Parris Chang 張旭成
[This article originally appeared in the Taiwan Times and is printed here by permission of the author]
US president-elect Donald Trump, who is preparing to take office on Jan. 20, has already begun questioning US policy toward China, causing Beijing to express serious concern. To placate Beijing, the White House has reaffirmed US President Barack Obama administration’s adherence to the long-standing “one China” policy, adding that it does not view Taiwan as a bargaining chip.
Beijing reacted strongly to Trump’s remarks because it believed that he is playing with fire by challenging a policy that has been in place for almost 40 years.
However, it makes sense that Trump is questioning the “one China” principle as the US does not support China’s stance. Although it recognizes that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government is representative of China, it does not recognize Taiwan belongs to China.
During the tenure of then-US president Jimmy Carter, the US normalized relations with China, but it still insisted on selling weapons to Taiwan.
In addition, the Taiwan Relations Act, which provides a security safety net for Taiwan, clearly states that the US does not recognize China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.
US mainstream media outlets have been overwhelmingly critical of the telephone call between President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Trump, and believe the two are upending a decades-long agreement between the US and China — an understanding that is not only ridiculous, but also based on ignorance. What they fail to understand is that the US’ “one China” policy is entirely different from China’s “one China” principle.
Trump’s national security team does not approve of the way Obama and former US presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton failed to improve relations with Taiwan in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act and the US’ own “one China” policy.
Believing the incoming president would innovate and instill change, rather than sticking to old ways, Trump’s team thinks the US should re-evaluate Taiwan’s geopolitical role and its strategic importance in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to the members of Trump’s national security team, no US president in the past 40 years has been truly friendly toward Taiwan and they have all failed to implement the Taiwan Relations Act and the “six assurances” issued by former US president Ronald Reagan.
The US is selling weapons to Taiwan and helps bolster its military defense capabilities, while, politically, showing that it is concerned with the future of Taiwan and opposed to China’s trying to change the “status quo” using military or economic means.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the US’ main military strategy has been to prevent any nation or group from controlling the Asia-Pacific region.
Viewing China’s attempt to dominate the Asia-Pacific region and its militarization of the South China Sea and reinforcing its military control over the area as a serious threat to the security of the US and its allies, Trump’s team believes the US must respond.
For this reason, Trump will not choose isolationism and withdraw from the Asia-Pacific. On the contrary, the Trump administration is likely to step up its cooperation with Japan, Taiwan and other allies to oppose China’s expansionism.
Beijing hawks have warned that, if the US improves relations with Taiwan, China would punish the latter by imposing economic sanctions or buying off its diplomatic allies. However, the US will not stand by and watch Beijing bully Taiwan or annex it by military force.
There is much room for improvement in Taiwan-US relations. Although Trump is planning to quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the US and Taiwan could make efforts toward signing a bilateral free-trade agreement, which would help Taiwan’s economy become more open, diversified and less dependent on China in order to strengthen Taiwan’s economic independence and autonomy.
High-level talks between Taiwan and US officials should become easier as ties between the two nations are expected to improve. Last year, the two signed a memorandum of understanding on the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, which underlines Taiwan’s importance and will help expand its international participation and cooperation.
Taiwan used to be an important strategic partner to the US. In 2001, Taiwan provided important assistance to the US in its war in Afghanistan.
US experts also see great value in Tsai’s promise that Taiwan will continue to be a reliable partner for regional security and believe that she will not bend to Beijing’s will like former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who entered into a “diplomatic truce” with China.
The Trump administration is expected to attach more importance to Taiwan. With that in mind, Taiwan must consider and prepare for a more active role in international affairs and taking responsibility for maintaining peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Taiwan’s civic organizations must become more active: Although diplomacy is important, the public also has a responsibility to participate in and promote foreign affairs, instead of relying on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to improve the nation’s ties with other nations. It is everyone’s responsibility to help Taiwan.
Parris Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Bureau of Taiwan.
Translated by Tu Yu-an