US President Donald Trump pictured days before his Covid-19 diagnosis. Photo: AP
Huiyun Feng and Kai He
Huiyun Feng and Kai He

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?
The world was shocked, if not entirely surprised, by US President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis earlier this month. But there could be more “October surprises” yet to come in the lead up to November’s presidential election. Diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, for one – a risky move which would undoubtedly lead to an unintended military clash.
The United States has warmed on its relations with Taiwan in recent months. On August 10, US Health Secretary Alex Azar arrived on the self-ruled island, becoming the highest-level US official to visit in more than four decades.
Then in mid-September, Washington sent another high-ranking official – Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach – to attend the memorial service for former President Lee Teng-hui.
Just two days before China’s National Day celebration on October 1, the US ambassador to the United Nations publicly expressed support for Taiwan’s inclusion in the UN system, saying that it is “cheating the world” for Taipei not to be involved.


Taiwan unveils new passport design to avoid confusion with mainland China’s

Taiwan unveils new passport design to avoid confusion with mainland China’s

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.

Are the US and China headed for war over Taiwan?

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.

Taiwan’s leadership is in a domain of gains. President Tsai Ing-Wen just won a second term after sweeping to victory in early 2020. The island’s success in fighting Covid-19 has also won international praise.
Moreover, there is much sympathy internationally for Taiwan’s effective exclusion from most international institutions, especially the World Health Organization. Therefore, Tsai should not feel inclined to introduce risky policies which could jeopardise her hard-earned political victories and international reputation.


Donald Trump continues to downplay severity of Covid-19 as more US officials report infections

Donald Trump continues to downplay severity of Covid-19 as more US officials report infections
For China’s Xi Jinping, the domestic situation is relatively stable and he is seen as a strong leader in spite of some dissenting voices within the Communist Party.

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.

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“China bashing”, in the form of attacking the country’s unfair trade practices, was useful to rally support during his 2016 campaign and this time round he is at it again, blaming China for the pandemic now rampaging through the US. Then there’s the two nations’ confrontations over trade, technology and – most recently – ideology during his first term in office.

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.

Trump pictured with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in Florida in 2017. Photo: Reuters

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.

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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.