Trump Counters China's Diplomatic Assault on Taiwan

This article first appeared in Taiwan’s Do Post.

A September 6 Washington Post column by Josh Rogin advanced a very misleading narrative with regard to US reaction to China’s attack on Taiwan’s international space. The headline read, “Trump is failing to counter China’s diplomatic assault on Taiwan.” This provocative assertion was widely covered in Taiwan and also unfortunately echoed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board on September 11.

There are several problems with this narrative, but before addressing them it is important to note that both publications base these provocative judgements on assertions made by anonymous sources -- a major political controversy in the US after the anonymous criticisms of President Trump in Bob Woodward’s book and anonymous New York Times op-ed. So the judgements conveyed in these publications very likely are based on conversations with US officials who have no verifiable knowledge of or direct interaction with the President, or even his top advisors.

Setting aside the sourcing problems, let us consider the key elements of this narrative at face value. In brief, the assertion is Trump has failed to counter China’s diplomatic assault on Taiwan due to his belief that he can charm Xi Jinping into concessions on trade or North Korea. Evidence provided is the lack of US Cabinet-level visits to Taiwan and approval of “only” $1.4 billion in arms sales. Beyond that, the evidence is based on rumored reaction to a low-level State Department visit to Taiwan, personnel problems within the State Department, and assumptions about what President Trump thinks of his relationship with his Chinese counterpart. This is a pretty weak basis for the bold assertion, “the United States seems either unwilling or unable to confront Beijing.”

However, the reality is President Trump and his administration are in fact confronting Beijing. No previous US president has challenged China on trade the way this one has. No previous president has publicly and directly blamed China’s leader for hindering progress with North Korea the way this one has. No previous president-elect accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, and publicly referred to her as the “President of Taiwan.” No previous president called out China’s bullying of airlines and hotels as “Orwellian nonsense.” These are significant changes in tone, direction, and substance that run counter to the Rogin narrative. All unprecedented. But it doesn’t stop there.

The recall of US ambassadors to Panama, Dominican Republic, and El Salvador is strategically significant. It is coincident with US Senate consideration of the 2018 TAIPEI Act, which recommends withholding security and economic assistance from countries who cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China. The Trump Administration is taking concrete action consistent with this Act before the Senate even votes the measure out of committee. Most importantly, the language used in this Act publicly declares support for preservation of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies as a national interest of the United States itself.

So, while more needs to be done on arms sales and Cabinet-level visits, President Trump and his administration clearly have not shied away from confronting China and have in fact done more to push back on China’s diplomatic assault on Taiwan than any of his predecessors, and we are only less than two years into his tenure.

For those who want to advocate more being done to counter Chinese provocations, I say welcome. It is very encouraging to see bipartisan advocacy of this kind of policy in the US Senate, and even more encouraging to see an administration act upon it without waiting for the long Capitol Hill process to run its course.

It would be a mistake for friends and leaders in Taiwan to overreact to misleading media narratives out of the US. We have too much low-level, anonymous rumor in circulation. Even more than usual.

Instead, we should acknowledge the good that has been done so far and work together to do even more.