Image: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen takes a call from president-elect Donald J. Trump on 6 December 2016.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s first months in office have been an unhealthy cocktail of apprehension and unease both at home and abroad. His unorthodox approach to foreign policy was highlighted recently when he accepted a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen. While the contents of the call were nothing more than a plain ‘congratulations’, his intentions were loud and clear: old political protocols do not matter. The “One China” policy, which has been the longstanding cornerstone of bilateral relations between the two influential powers has been put into question, leading many to wonder what else may be in store for Asia in these turbulent times under an isolationist American president.
Asia has long been one of the United States’s key pillars of foreign policy, which has capitalized on its emerging markets and attempted to contain China’s increasing aggressiveness in the region. While Trump has taken a hardline stance on China by addressing his concerns with their unfair trade practices on Twitter, it is not the only nation it has antagonized. Cutting the cord on the Trans-Pacific Partnership may go in line with his “America First” policy, but without an alternative or a superior proposal Trump risks abdicating American economic interests in Asia and losing America’s trade leadership in the region. China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is set to fill the vacuum left behind by the failure of the TPP, which would surely make it highly difficult for the United States to negotiate standards and to benefit from trade.
It should then come as no surprise that other Asian nations are reacting accordingly. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak signed $30 billion worth of energy and trade deals with China in November, and further noted the special relationship between the two nations based on its shared culture and mutual respect. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States and appears to be cozying up to China and Russia. Deals between China and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia has led to China doubling its investment with Indonesia since 2015. Other nations such as Vietnam or Myanmar could easily swing in China’s favor as they would prefer a nation with consistent stances and a willingness to keep its promises over a country that could flip its position on the pull of an electoral lever. It seems that relations are warming, despite the regional row over islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines, who won the International Court Case regarding sovereignty in the region, has loosened its claims to the islands. Without the United States’s economic gravity to counteract China’s, many of these nations orbit will start to move East instead of West.
This leaves the United States’s most powerful East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, in precarious positions. Trump has previously mentioned during his campaign that his “America First” policy may involve contentious negotiations regarding defense and trade with its key partners in Asia. He called America’s allies “free-riders” despite the fact that Tokyo contributes $1.6 billion for its defense costs and South Korea pays $866 million to Washington annually. These contributions amount to 74.5% of the total cost in Japan and 40% in South Korea. While U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’s visit to the East Asian allies may be seen as a message of reassurance, the fact remains that Trump’s unpredictable behaviour is going to be a thorn on many nations sides for years to come.
That being said, there is no Asian nation that has more at stake in Trump’s maverick foreign policy approach than Taiwan. Since 1971, the United States has agreed to keep its relationship with Taiwan unofficial, and publicly respected Beijing’s assertion that Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China. Trump addressing Tsai Ing-Wen as the “President of Taiwan” is an unexpected declaration that even Tsai herself has never made– she is officially the President of the Republic of China, the legal successor of the Kuomintang who fled from the mainland after losing the civil war in 1949. While its title as the “Republic of China” is merely face-saving as Taiwan has an identity distinctly independent from that of China, it has been a continuous life-saving instrument. The situation of Taiwan is a main point of contention between the two superpowers, and if conflict were to arise between the two, the status of Taiwan could easily be seen as one of the key reasons.
That is why Trump’s phone call with Taiwan, along with any future contact with the state, is only setting up Taipei to fail. If forced to maintain peaceful relations with only one of the two nations, the United States will most certainly choose Beijing. No former American president has ever chosen otherwise, and if push comes to shove, Beijing will make Trump choose them. At that point, Trump would be forced to drop one of America’s longest standing allies and leave an island of 25 million targeted by missiles to fend for itself.
It remains unclear whether the president truly understands the intricacies of international diplomacy. Accepting a phone call from a world leader may not seem like a major issue, but it does show how a man who governs the world’s most powerful nation is prone to make impulsive actions and not understand their effects. Trump’s foreign policy approach continues to show a lack of consistent form of logic or theme, whether that be antagonizing China and Islamic states, leaving long time Asian allies in the dust, taking steps towards a rapprochement with Russia, or threatening to negatively affect the economies of his nearest border allies. All of these actions effectively portray a leader unable to establish a coherent foreign policy blueprint. Trump’s only hope for reigniting US influence in the region rests on his willingness to provide a new alternative to the TPP and re-engaging in bilateral relations with its Allies in the East. This however, is contradictory to the promise of withdrawal from US interests abroad, a promise he made to his electorate. In striving to make America great again, Trump may risk elevating some of America’s most conspicuous threats to be even greater.
Alec Regino is an undergraduate at McGill University double majoring in Sociology and History. He is particularly interested in international affairs, Southeast Asian politics, international security, and foreign policy.