President Trump has sent conflicting signals on Taiwan, first suggesting cozier relations with the self-ruled island and then walking that back to reassure China.
In a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, he pledged no change to the “one China” policy that Beijing sees as a cornerstone of diplomatic ties. That appeared to signal that any shift in policy would not disrupt the diplomatic framework that has been in place since the U.S. switched recognition to Beijing in 1979.
Despite the attempt to calm the choppy political waters, Trump’s fondness for deal-making is deeply unsettling. Trump still needs to allay concerns in Taiwan that he might treat the island as a tool in resolving trade problems with China.
Trump needs to make a public nod to the island’s increasingly robust democracy.
Before taking office, Trump made headlines by taking a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in a break from decades of diplomatic practice that had kept contacts only at lower levels. This was widely seen as a signal that the close but unofficial ties between Washington and Taipei could be headed for an upgrading.
But the initial euphoria in Taiwan faded quickly. Trump described the one China policy as “up for negotiation” and of value to the U.S. only if China made concessions on trade.
The Trump administration’s still-evolving China policy appears to be aimed at extracting concessions on trade, which is blamed for the loss of American jobs. If China makes a show of buying aircraft or other big-ticket items or promises to make job-boosting investments in the U.S., would Washington agree to lessen its support for Taiwan? Would the U.S. be willing to compromise on the quality of weapons sold to Taiwan for self-defense? Would it be less likely to counter Beijing’s efforts to squeeze Taiwan off the world stage?
If Taiwan turns out to be just a bargaining chip in some grand negotiating strategy involving China, the island stands to lose out “bigly.”
U.S. ties with Taiwan will remain unofficial. China is the world’s second-largest economy, and its strategic importance is increasingly evident as Beijing and Washington try to address a range of global, regional, and bilateral issues. But the U.S. and Taiwan share democratic values, and this shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle as this administration—led by a man with no prior government, let alone foreign policy, experience—tries to set its global objectives.
The anxiety in Taiwan over Trump flows across party lines, affecting the ruling Democratic Progressive Party as well as the main opposition Nationalists. Taiwan can hardly put much trust in an American president who repeatedly praises Russian leader Vladimir Putin and spends so much time denigrating democratic partners such as Australia, Germany, and Japan.
Trump might consider the following:
—Taiwan gradually has shaken off its authoritarian past since it emerged from martial law in 1987. One year ago, the Nationalist Party —which had controlled the island under martial law for four decades to 1987 but then gradually supported the transition to democracy and the first presidential election in 1996—was soundly defeated at the polls. The Kuomintang’s defeat in 2016 marked the island’s third peaceful transfer of power between parties.
—Last week, Freedom House, the Washington-based rights watchdog, put Taiwan slightly ahead of the United States in its global political freedom rankings.
Additionally, in January, an international review team examined Taiwan’s human rights protections at the government’s invitation. A group of international human rights veterans assessed the implementation of two key United Nations accords: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These are part of the International Bill of Human Rights, which covers a wide range of fundamental freedoms from the right to speech and assembly to fair trials and the prohibition of torture.
It was Taiwan’s second review, and the island won praise for the progress made since its emergence from martial law nearly three decades ago. It didn’t get a free pass—the review team called for the government to formally scrap the rarely used death penalty, create an independent national human rights commission, and push ahead with a reconciliation process to address wrongdoings of the martial law era.
Taiwan agreed to the periodic review even though it was not a member of the United Nations, having been effectively forced out of the world body in 1971. It adopted the two U.N. covenants as domestic law in 2009 and agreed to a monitoring system thereafter.
“This is highly unique,” Manfred Nowak, Secretary General of the European Inter-University Center for Human Rights and Democratization, and head of one of two panels that conducted the Taiwan review, said at a press conference. “In terms of human rights Taiwan is one of the best countries in the Asia-Pacific region,” said the University of Vienna law professor, as the group handed its report to the government.
Importantly, the review allows Taiwan to point justifiably to the contrast with rival China, which claims the island and has long been criticized for its poor human rights record. More recently, China, whose human rights practices were not reviewed by the committee, has been tightening domestic social controls. It has detained lawyers, journalists, and civil society activists; slapped new curbs on non-government organizations; put in place a tough new law on cybersecurity; and the president of its Supreme People’s Court issued the extraordinary warning to the communist nation’s judiciary against “false Western ideals” such as an independent judicial system.
Taiwan has defenses that could be used to head off excessive compromises by Washington. It could turn to friends in the administration, including Trump’s own chief of staff Reince Priebus, or head of the White House National Trade Council Peter Navarro, an outspoken China critic. It could call on allies in Congress and make use of protections under the Taiwan Relations Act, legislation that was drafted by Congress to keep an earlier administration in check after diplomatic ties with the island were cut.
But Trump needs to hear more of the message that the U.S. has much to gain from Taiwan’s continued prosperity. He needs to hear that the benefits from a democratic Taiwan could outweigh the leverage that might be applied against China.
Trump took a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese leader after his election. At some point, he might reflect on the fact that the Taiwan president also came to power in the same way he did—through a free electoral process.