Thought Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis was a pre-election shocker? Wait until he plays the Taiwan card
- If the US president’s re-election prospects continue to deteriorate, there’s a very real risk he might be pushed towards the seemingly unthinkable
- Recognising Taiwan diplomatically would allow Trump to truly claim his ‘wartime president’ mantle – but at what cost to the region, and the world?
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Moreover, the Trump administration has reportedly proposed seven large arms sales packages to Taiwan, including long-range missiles that would allow Taiwanese jets to hit distant targets on the Chinese mainland.
It is clear that Trump’s enthusiasm on Taiwan is about painting him as being “tough on China” during the coming election. “China bashing” has become a useful ploy for US politicians to gather support when election time comes. This time, Trump has waved the “Taiwan card” wildly, but it’s full of risks and dangers.
All leaders make decisions, but some decisions are riskier than others. Rational leaders are more likely to make a risk-averse decision in a domain of gains – if they feel that the prospect for future development is good – simply because they do not want to lose what they have already obtained.
However, if leaders are in a domain of losses – with dark prospects for their political futures – they are more likely to take riskier choices in hopes of changing their doomed political fate.
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Though the international environment is undoubtedly very tough, the party can harness state-sanctioned nationalism to overcome many of these hardships, as it has done throughout history.
Beijing’s relative success in combating the pandemic has also strengthened the political legitimacy of the party. Xi, then, is also in a domain of gains and has no need to take risky actions, especially over Taiwan.
The US is a different matter, however. Re-election clearly means a lot to Trump, especially with the recent revelation of his tax records and a disastrous first presidential debate, the stakes are too high for him to lose.
If Trump’s re-election prospects continue to deteriorate, there’s a very real risk he might be pushed towards the seemingly unthinkable – recognising Taiwan diplomatically.
It might sound far-fetched, but it cannot be ruled out given his desperate struggle to stay in office right now. Provoking a military action over Taiwan would allow Trump to truly claim the mantle of wartime president – having already done so once this year amid the pandemic. And history shows that wartime presidents are much more likely to win re-election in the US.
Such an eventuality in the Taiwan Strait would be a catastrophe not just for the region, but the world. Xi would have no choice but to fight because Taiwan’s independence would threaten the party’s legitimacy with the Chinese people.
Tsai certainly seems to understand that Taiwan is just a pawn in Trump’s political gamble, but if she is tempted to play his game, the self-ruled island would surely become collateral damage in a great power stand-off.
It is time for cool heads, smart decision-making, and true diplomacy. China should make it clear what its red line is on the Taiwan Strait. Strategic ambiguity is only encouraging risky actions.
Now that the US ambassador to China has stepped down, recalling China’s ambassador to the US might be a reciprocal move that Beijing can make to convey a clear signal to Washington.
For Taiwanese policymakers, resisting US temptations is the first priority given mounting tensions across the strait. It might be wise for Taiwanese leaders to make it clear to Washington what they want and, more importantly, what they do not want.
In the end, the ball is in Trump’s court. Will he play the Taiwan card in an attempt to secure his re-election? It cannot be ruled out. With any luck, the US system of checks and balances will somehow rein him in before the election. Though it is better for all parties to be prepared so that another “October surprise” does not lead to military conflict, or even nuclear apocalypse.
Huiyun Feng is a senior lecturer of international relations in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University in Australia.
Kai He is a professor of international relations at the Griffith Asia Institute & Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University in Australia.