As Taiwan’s president was inaugurated for a second term this week, Trump administration officials had some choices to make: How do they congratulate her? Which U.S. official does what?
And, above all, how much do they stick it to the Beijing government in the process?
They ultimately went with a mix: A State Department official and a top White House aide sent video messages for the event, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opted for a written statement in advance and some public remarks afterward. The U.S. also announced a potential deal to sell torpedoes to the island, whose disputed political status has long been a fraught subject of U.S.-China relations.
But U.S. President Donald Trump himself has yet to publicly weigh in.
So far, the maneuvering has appeared to be aggressive enough to inspire both Taiwanese gratitude and Chinese rhetorical backlash; Beijing has threatened “necessary measures in response” to America’s expressions of congratulations. But — for now at least — the Trump team’s tactics also have been restrained enough to keep tensions from spiraling out of control.
The Trump administration’s approach to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s Wednesday inauguration in illustrative of its broader strategy toward an authoritarian government in Beijing that it views as a long-term threat to U.S. dominance: Push Chinese Communist Party leaders hard, but not to the point of diplomatic rupture or open warfare.
It is a tactic that has been pursued with added vigor in recent months as the coronavirus pandemic has hardened differences between U.S. and China, while giving Taiwan — which has seen just seven deaths since the outbreak began — something to boast about. For better or worse, Taiwan — whose democracy the Trump administration openly supports, but whose independence it does not — has become a useful cudgel for the United States.
“No Taiwan official is going to turn down some expression of help that’s offered on a silver platter from the United States,” said Daniel Russel, a former senior Asia hand in the Obama administration. He added, however, that Taiwan’s leaders have “very mixed feelings. Without a doubt, they harbor a great fear of being used as a pawn or a chip.”
The relationship between Washington and Beijing has been on a downward slope for years, and it has grown increasingly ugly under Trump because of a tariff-driven trade war he launched over his belief that China was taking advantage of America on the economic front.
The coronavirus pandemic emerged in China late last year, and Taiwan, thanks to its past experiences with infectious diseases in the region, recognized the danger early. Its technocrat-driven response has severely limited the outbreak on its soil, and it has since touted its success as a counterpoint to Chinese stumbles. Taiwan has, among other moves, sent face masks to other countries, including the U.S. — part of a “mask diplomacy” strategy that Beijing also has used.
The U.S. has seized on Taiwan’s success as a hammer with which to hit China.
The Trump administration recently called on the World Health Organization to allow Taiwan to participate in meetings of the World Health Assembly, its main decision-making body, under observer status. The assembly met this past week, without the Taiwanese being permitted a role amid Chinese resistance. And America’s push for Taiwan’s inclusion was somewhat ironic given Trump’s own recent threats to quit the World Health Organization.
Still, the Trump administration clearly thought the effort was worth it to put Beijing on the spot.
“The [People’s Republic of China’s] spiteful action to silence Taiwan exposes the emptiness of its claims to want transparency and international cooperation to fight the pandemic, and makes the difference between China and Taiwan ever more stark,” Pompeo said in a statement.
“Taiwan is a model world citizen,” he added, “while the PRC continues to withhold vital information about the virus and its origins.”
The Trump administration is also using Taiwan as a weapon in its battle with China over 5G wireless technology.
Earlier this week, American officials heralded an announcement by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, one of the world’s leading computer chip makers, that it would build a factory in Arizona. The next day, the Commerce Department announced a rule change that could bar Chinese tech giant Huawei from doing business with TSMC and other global chip manufacturers.
The U.S. and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations, and officially the U.S. has a One China policy that recognizes the regime in Beijing as the government of China. But the U.S. and Taiwan maintain strong unofficial relations, as well as robust economic ties, and it is U.S. policy to help Taiwan defend itself against Beijing.
In the transition period before he took office, Trump agreed to speak to the Taiwanese president, a deviation from diplomatic norms that, while probably not part of a calculated strategy on Trump’s part, stunned Asia watchers. That incident aside, Trump aides have long seen bolstering Taiwan as critical to their pressure campaign on China’s communist leaders.
Perhaps nowhere has the effort to strengthen ties been clearer than in the military-to-military realm.
Last year, the Trump administration greenlit a controversial F-16 fighter jet sale and a $2.2 billion package of M1A2T Abrams tanks and portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that infuriated Beijing.
In keeping with the increased push for weapons sales to Taiwan, the State Department on Wednesday approved a possible sale of 18 submarine-launched torpedoes for $180 million. The proposed sale will serve as a “deterrent to regional threats,” the department said.
As China aggressively builds up its military capability, even signaling an increased willingness to attack Taiwan, U.S. officials are now pushing to normalize weapons sales, sell more advanced equipment and even potentially begin conducting joint naval exercises with the island — all moves sure to further enrage Beijing.
Some of the moves have been fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, which has “clarified” the competition with China in the public sphere, said Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense. “Covid has made it clear that we are in a situation of competition … to the American people,” he said.
Randall Schriver, who served as assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific affairs until January, predicted that Washington will seek to help Taipei further modernize its military, potentially with additional sales of coastal missile defenses, spy drones and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
“This was the trajectory that was already planned,” Schriver said. “The recent experience with coronavirus is an accelerant to some of those plans.”
Officials have also considered enhanced training, including possible joint naval exercises, as a counter to the growing threat from Beijing, Schriver said. Aside from training associated with major foreign military sales such as the F-16 deal, historically, the U.S. military has refrained from exercising with Taiwan because of China’s sensitivities.
Outside the military realm, Taipei is pressing Washington for additional support. For example, Taiwanese officials are pushing for some kind of bilateral trade deal, Schriver noted. Taiwan is already a major U.S. trading partner.
Taiwan’s leaders have repeatedly expressed gratitude for Trump’s support over the years. For instance, Taiwan was one of a few foreign entities to offer aid to the United States — $800,000 worth — as Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc in 2017, a symbolic move more than anything else.
This week, amid the inaugural festivities, Tsai’s government expressed its pleasure over receiving the various messages of congratulations from U.S. officials. In particular, it highlighted the video messages sent from Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell and White House deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger.
Both men made subtle digs at China in their comments.
Stilwell said “the world owes Taiwan a debt for ringing the alarm” about the coronavirus crisis early on. Pottinger, speaking in fluent Mandarin, hit a similar point, indirectly tweaking Beijing by reminding it that the illness began on its soil — a point China has at times sought to dispute through some of its messaging.
“Taiwan learned critical lessons from the 2003 SARS epidemic,” Pottinger said, according to a translation shared on Tsai’s Twitter account, “and applied them in advance of the outbreak of the mysterious disease the Chinese state-controlled media called ‘Wuhan pneumonia.’”
Pompeo did not go so far as to send a video message or engage in a phone call with Tsai, and Trump has kept silent, at least as far as has been publicly acknowledged. Serious direct engagement by a U.S. president or even his chief diplomat could have enraged Beijing well beyond its usual anger at U.S.-Taiwan overtures, analysts said.
But Pompeo’s issuance of a written congratulatory statement — which called Taiwan a “force for good in the world,” referred to Tsai as “Taiwan’s president” and was read aloud during Tsai’s inauguration ceremony — was a highly unusual, likely unprecedented, move.
The secretary of State further praised Taiwan during a press conference on Wednesday. However, Pompeo sidestepped a question on whether the U.S. should consider formalizing its relationship with Taipei, instead using the moment to criticize what he said was Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.
“We’re beginning to work to make sure we get America First, that we get this foreign policy right, and that we respond to these risks that the Chinese Communist Party presents to the United States in an appropriate way,” Pompeo said.
China’s government reacted in harsh but predictable terms to the American expressions of support for Taiwan this week, saying it threatens the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Washington.
“China will take necessary measures in response to the U.S. erroneous practices, and the consequences will be borne by the U.S. side,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Wednesday.
People close to Taiwanese leaders say they are, for the most part, thrilled with the Trump administration’s pro-Taipei bent so far, but there are some lingering disappointments, some centered on diplomatic protocols.
The fact that no senior U.S. official visits Taiwan, despite U.S. legislation that encourages such travel, is one sore point. Another is the restrictions around the types of meetings Taiwanese representatives get with U.S. diplomats. Taiwan doesn’t have an embassy in Washington; its interests are instead represented by what’s known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.
Taiwanese officials are careful in how they speak about the all-important relationship with the U.S., mindful of Beijing’s red lines. A TECRO representative said that Taiwan was “grateful for the support from our diplomatic allies, as well as the United States, Japan, and many other like-minded countries on the issue of Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly.”
“It’s the little things,” said one person close to TECRO officials. Trump aides “all say, ‘I love Taiwan, it’s wonderful, it’s the greatest democracy in East Asia.’ But the Taiwanese can’t meet in the State Department. They have to meet in a restaurant.”
There’s also the always unnerving questions about how reliable Trump himself truly is, given his vacillation toward China over the years and his occasional broadsides against longstanding allies.
While Trump campaigned for office on an anti-China message, he has generally tried to maintain a good relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He even praised Xi’s early response to the pandemic, possibly to protect an early-phase trade deal between the two countries and hopes of a bigger deal later.
In the same vein, Trump has kept to a minimum his comments on China’s human rights abuses in places like Hong Kong, where a pro-democracy movement has been met with crackdowns.
But Trump also has questioned the One China policy. Just days ago, he floated the idea of ending ties to Beijing, claiming, “You’d save $500 billion if you cut off the whole relationship.”
He also recently jabbed at Xi, saying the Chinese leader was behind a “disinformation and propaganda attack on the United States and Europe.” China bashing also is a main theme of Trump’s ongoing reelection campaign.
Ultimately, “there is a tremendous amount of ambivalence in Taiwan and worry,” said Russel, whose positions in the Obama administration included serving as senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. “And there’s reason to worry that Trump will lose interest in Taiwan. He’d trade away Taiwan in a heartbeat if he thought it would get him his trade deal with China.”
There are limits to how far the Trump administration is willing to go for Taiwan.
The administration appears to have no immediate plans to formally recognize Taiwan’s government, a measure viewed as extreme given Beijing’s longstanding demand that Taipei reunify with China under the “one country, two systems” proposal, Schriver said.
And, despite the opportunity posed by the unusually tense relations between the U.S. and China, there’s no discussion of supporting a Taiwanese bid for formal independence from Beijing. Such a move would be so provocative toward China that one senior Trump administration official said the sky “would fall.”
“No one has ever talked about independence,” the official said. “Even the hard-core Taiwan lobby in D.C. doesn’t seriously say that.”
That’s probably fine with Taiwan’s current leadership. On the island’s complicated political spectrum it is often cast as pro-independence, but it is also cognizant that declaring all-out independence anytime soon could prompt far more than just tough talk from Beijing.
The Taiwanese are “painfully aware of the fact that, while China may have limited options to punish the U.S., it has more options for punishing Taiwan,” Russel said.