To salvage the increasingly disadvantageous electoral climate, U.S. President Donald Trump has adopted a strategy of “anti-China, pro-Trump.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared that China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea are illegitimate. A week later, he claimed that the Chinese Consulate in Houston was engaged in espionage, demanding its closure and criticizing China as not being a “normal country.” China countered by shutting down the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, heating up the rivalry between the two powers.
For example, in the past three months, in addition to passing the Hong Kong Autonomy Act and prohibiting officials enforcing the Hong Kong national security law from visiting the U.S., the U.S. has also added a new ban on travel to and from 33 Chinese organizations on the Entity List and designated four Chinese media outlets as foreign missions; passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, blacklisting four senior Xinjiang officials; and approved Taiwan’s $620 million PAC-3 air defense recertification request. Of course, the occasional U.S. warships have also been seen frequenting the Taiwan Strait. The Senate just passed the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, inviting Taiwan to participate in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, and it has been rumored that the White House is even considering imposing a travel ban on the 92 million-member Chinese Communist Party!
China reacted fiercely by closing down the Chengdu Consulate, expelling five U.S. media outlets and expanding military exercises in the South China Sea. China-U.S. relations have plunged to a new low. Harvard professor Ezra Vogel speculates that Beijing fears that Taiwan will cross the red line and a war will break out in the Taiwan Strait. Bloomberg News predicts that the South China Sea has become the most likely conflict zone for the U.S. and China, and alerts are frequently circulating throughout East Asia.
China and the U.S. clash — where does Taiwan go from here?
Before answering this question, it is important to understand the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy. With Trump’s anti-China strategy aimed at winning the election, it is only natural that China’s neighboring countries cannot escape the fate of also being manipulated: From the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, to denying China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea and to the doubling of arms sales to Taiwan, Trump has picked all of the most sensitive sovereignty issues to irritate China. Yet we see no trace of policies that would have tangible benefits for Asian countries, such as increasing defense commitments to allies, enhancing economic and trade ties between the United States and the Asia-Pacific region or increasing military aid to friendly nations. In fact, not only has Trump failed to consolidate the trust of his Asian allies, but he has also spoken ill of them and even withdrawn from the East Asia Free Trade Agreement.
The same is true of Trump’s policy toward Taiwan — despite the passage of many declaratory laws by Congress, the extremely important investment protection agreement negotiations between Taiwan and the United States have been stalled since President Tsai Ing-wen took office. Taiwan’s pandemic prevention performance has been outstanding, but the U.S. had still been reluctant to sign a petition supporting Taiwan’s membership before it proposed withdrawing from the World Health Organization. The Taiwan Travel Act was passed by Congress, allowing high-level visits, but no ministerial visits have been made in the past five years. To Trump, Taiwan is nothing more than a tool in his “anti-China, pro-Trump” strategy!
What should Taiwan do?
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says that the success of East Asia lies in the presence of “U.S. protection, but the key is in maintaining good relations with China,” and offers the most helpful advice to neighboring nations. The biggest problem with the Tsai administration is that it sees the China-American rivalry as a multiple-choice problem; even Voice of America has said that Taiwan has clearly “chosen” Washington. However, the Chinese Communist Party has a reunification agenda toward Taiwan, and the United States is the greatest guarantee of Taiwan’s security — irrespective of political affiliations, who in Taiwan would deny this basic consensus? By denigrating those who support cross-strait peaceful exchanges as “choosing China,” Taiwan’s strategy becomes shallower, and cross-strait peace is thrown into jeopardy.
Treating cross-strait relations as multiple-choice problems has not only led to internal division and a lack of hope for peace, but has also led to internal conflicts that are difficult to reconcile. In the first six months of this year, Taiwan’s exports to the world increased by 0.5%. New exports to countries to the south showed a change of -4.5%. However, exports to China and Hong Kong rose by 9.8% against this trend, bringing the share of exports to China to a record high of 42.3%. In the first half of the year, investment in China rose by 52%. These figures undermine President Tsai’s repeated pledge to reduce reliance on exports to Chinese.
In the face of complex international changes, what Taiwan should do is make the most advantageous calculations based on reality, maintain its alliance with the United States and uphold the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Yet on the other hand, Taiwan must reduce rather than increase risks in the Taiwan Strait, enhance rather than shrink its space in the international community and increase rather than limit its global competitiveness. This is the only option for other countries in the face of hegemony as well.
In the China-American rivalry, if Taiwan only knows how to choose from a list of answers and not how to calculate its own, the risk of being caught by the storm will only get higher!