President Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy put Taiwan squarely at the frontline in a bid to challenge China’s rising economic and political power in the Asia Pacific area.
The administration’s National Security Strategy released last month declared that while the U.S. will continue to observe a “One China Policy,” it will “maintain our strong ties with Taiwan.” And that includes commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.
Despite the perfunctory words of support for a one China policy, it seems that Trump has been playing around the edges as he pursues his economic nationalism policy. Trump said in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal that he would commit to the one China policy only if Beijing is willing to compromise on trade and currency issues.
“Calling out the strategic competition with China is a bold, declaratory policy” of Trump, the first U.S. president to do so, said Zack Cooper, a senior Asian Security adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He spoke on Wednesday during a panel exploring Taiwan’s role in Asia Pacific area.
Naval Academy professor Maochun Yu said that the Trump administration’s prioritization of economic nationalism – meaning focusing on revitalizing the domestic economy – has made China its number one competitor in economic power.
Cooper explained that Japan’s and America’s influence in the Asia Pacific region is declining relative to China’s power. Trump’s new National Security Strategy has strengthened U.S. ties with India and Japan, as well as reaffirming its commitment to Taiwan.
According to Yu, this rare multilateral ally strategy was based on the projection that arms sales to India and Taiwan will likely grow. India is trying to reduce reliance on military sales from Russia, while Taiwan has been strengthening its defense power.
Patrick Cronin, the senior director of Asia-Pacific Security program at the Center for a New American Security, said “Taiwan is really on the frontline of this strategic competition whether we want to talk about that or not.”
“If Taiwan were to be excessively coerced to lose democracy, to lose the economy, this would be a huge setback to United States’ strategy,” said Cronin. “Otherwise, it could be just seen as a huge step back loss of U.S. influence in power in the region.”
On the other hand, Taiwanese leader Ing-wen Tsai is actively responding to U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy, according to the director of the China Power Project at CSIS Bonnie Glaser.
Taiwan has been expanding its role in the region. This includes a New Southbound Policy created by Tsai four months after her inauguration, improving cultural and economic cooperation with South Asian countries and ultimately, reducing its dependence on mainland China.
The policy, said Glaser, is now more focused on strengthening Taiwan’s political role rather than economic role in the region.
Glaser approves of Tsai’s new Southbound policy, saying in a twitter that a secure and prosperous Taiwan is in U.S. interest.
However, “the United States should avoid doing certain things with Taiwan, because it would damage ties with China,” Glaser added. “That is always tested by every administration. And we will see how this administration does.”
Trump accepted a “congratulation” phone call from Tsai the month after he won the presidential election. They congratulated each other in winning elections and discussed future cooperation on economic, political and security issues.
Although the White House clarified and reaffirmed U.S. support of the one China policy, Trump was the first president to break the protocol since the advent of the Sino-U.S. relationship, when America promised no diplomatic contact with Taiwan.
In early January, Trump also appointed Randall Schriver as the new Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.
According to Professor Steven Goldstein, the director of Taiwan program at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Schriver is “sympathetic” with Taiwan. He has done a lot to improve U.S. and Taiwan relations as well as Taiwan’s military defenses in the past.
The appointment can be seen as a policy favor that Trump gave to Taiwan, said Goldstein.