Why Taiwan should be wary about its growing bond with the US
- Taipei must consider the possibility that Washington is using it as a pawn to frustrate Beijing. There is disturbing evidence that US President Donald Trump considers relations with Taiwan expendable in the context of a deal he could make with China
However, Taiwan should also view the US’ moves to bolster bilateral ties with some measure of trepidation. Simply put, the US’ objectives, in taking such unprecedented steps with Taiwan over the past few years, remain unclear.
On the one hand, Taiwan and the US are natural partners. Both are vibrant democracies with numerous overlapping political, economic and security interests. From this perspective, it makes sense to enhance US-Taiwan relations and to integrate Taiwan into the US Indo-Pacific strategy with “like-minded” nations.
On the other hand, Washington is embroiled in an increasingly ferocious great-power competition with Beijing, raising concerns that the US may actually be strengthening ties with Taiwan primarily to frustrate and thwart China.
Of course, the US probably wants to both strengthen its ties with Taiwan and dangle Taiwan in front of China, but Washington’s prioritisation of its goals is of utmost importance to Taipei. If the former is paramount, then Taiwan should continue to deepen ties with its most valuable partner without worrying about the US-China great-power competition or potentially being used as a pawn.
But if the latter is Washington’s top objective, then Taipei should feel serious consternation, and perhaps even consider distancing itself from the Americans to avoid an undesirable outcome.
The problem for Taipei is that there is some evidence to suggest both possibilities.
Since the start of Donald Trump’s administration in 2017, the US Congress has passed numerous pro-Taiwan bills that have been signed into law by Trump.
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Viewed through this lens, Azar’s visit comes as the Trump administration is looking to punish China, and Taiwan happens to be, to quote a Politico article headline from May, “a new cudgel” that allows the Trump administration to do precisely that.
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Separately, Trump has reportedly likened Taiwan to the tip of his Sharpie pen and China to the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office – underscoring his view that China was far larger and thus more important than Taiwan.
Going forward, Taiwan should welcome strengthened ties with the US, but also recognise that intensifying US-China competition holds risks for the island. Additionally, Trump’s penchant for deal making should be a factor in whether Taipei feels comfortable with the possibility that US-Taiwan relations might be compromised or sacrificed in some way for a future deal with China. Unfortunately, there is precedent for this as well.
Derek Grossman is a senior defence analyst at the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California. He formerly served as the daily intelligence briefer to the assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Pentagon