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US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is closely watched around the world, not just because he is the leader of the world’s most powerful country, but because his pronouncements are both alarming and confusing.

Amid the dramatic shift from his campaign rhetoric, analysts seem unable to make up their minds: Either Trump is upending America’s traditional postwar priorities or accommodating conventional wisdom. There has, however, been little to affirm America’s “One-China” policy, creating scope for misconceptions. How can the Trump administration reach out to China to affirm America’s “One-China” policy and how can stability in the Taiwan Strait be achieved?

Trump’s statements, often full of braggadocio, are unbecoming for the leader of such a big power and frequently causes disputes. However, Trump’s high-handed character, coupled with the strength of the United States as a superpower, has had an impact on the international politico-economic situation, causing disruptions and divisions.

For two and a half years, the world has wondered how Trump would cope with a real international crisis. Under the “America First” banner, Trump has promised to reset US foreign policy, focusing heavily on negotiating a string of bilateral trade agreements. For trade-dependent economies in the Indo-Pacific with close ties to the United States, like Taiwan, this moment of disruption in international trade presents both risks and opportunities. The US-China trade war and the increasing bifurcation of high-tech platforms present major challenges for the Taiwanese economy.

For two and a half years, the world has wondered how Trump would cope with a real international crisis

The ongoing shift in global economic weight to the Indo-Pacific presents tremendous opportunities for the United States along with significant challenges. The US shares a deep strategic interest in working together to keep Indo-Pacific markets open, contestable, and rules-based. In doing so, Washington can help maximize the prosperity and security of the American people, as well as those in the region. Can Washington articulate an effective bilateral security strategy with Taipei? The question is, what role will the United States play?

As the world watches Trump’s focus shifting to domestic matters, America’s allies in the Indo-Pacific are particularly concerned about the possibility of US disengagement from the region. There has been much recent inward-looking rhetoric across the US political spectrum and Taiwan sees this as an indication of a broader shift in public sentiment. Taipei watches the Trump doctrine with bewilderment and unease and fears that many Americans agree that withdrawal from the Indo-Pacific can “make America great again.”

So how does disengagement from the region make the United States strong and great again? Why should America care about the Indo-Pacific and why it matters? If Washington abandons partnerships with the region and falls behind China in global influence, the United States will have no real presence across the Indo-Pacific. In such a case, China would quickly move in to fill the vacuum and establish its own Sino-centric order in the Indo-Pacific.

If the US government is serious about maintaining an economic and military-strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific region, it must strengthen its ties with one of the most economically liberal and democratic nations in the region, Taiwan. Building a more robust and diversified relationship with Taiwan is reflective of Washington’s broader approach to the Indo-Pacific; this relationship also advances many of America’s economic and security interests in the region.

For the past decade, China has been adding new, advanced fighters, which dangerously tilts the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, it is essential that the Trump doctrine in foreign policy must take an affirmative action to substantiate its claim that it adheres to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and promptly responds to the situation across the Strait. President Trump must act to fulfill America’s legal obligations to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.

The argument that Washington should not turn its back on Taiwan to gain favor with Beijing faces strong counter-arguments that have prevailed in policy-making up to now. The case for America turning its back on Taiwan typically encounters at least three barriers: the betrayal of US ideals, harm to America’s reputation as a reliable security partner, and Taiwan’s strategic value. Abandoning staunch, long-time friends like Taiwan would damage US credibility in the eyes of other regional governments.

Turning to the subject of Taiwan-US economic and trade relations, Taiwan is committed to fostering free trade and the rules-based liberal international order that the United States created and benefits from the most. The US-Taiwan relationship is so interlocked. For example, US goods and services trade with Taiwan totaled an estimated $94.5 billion in 2018. Exports were $40.3 billion; imports were $54.2 billion. The US goods and services trade deficit with Taiwan was $13.9 billion in 2018. Taiwan is currently the US’s 11th-largest goods trading partner with $76.0 billion in two-way goods trade during 2018.

The Trump administration has made it clear that the United States’ destiny is inseparably tied to the Indo-Pacific, but the tone of the current Trump doctrine in foreign policy may render the “can’t turn its back on Taiwan” commitment untenable. Taiwan cannot assume that the United States will make the rational choice of placing its bets on the Indo-Pacific as the isolationism and protectionism take a firm hold on US politics in Trump’s doctrine.

Taiwan cannot assume that the United States will make the rational choice of placing its bets on the Indo-Pacific as the isolationism and protectionism take a firm hold on US politics in Trump’s doctrine

Taiwan and the US share values such as freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, rule of law and a market-based economy. Over the past decades, both sides have enjoyed a robust relationship spanning commerce, culture and other areas of mutual interest. The US Congress had “long championed” a strong relationship with Taiwan and had pressed successive administrations to fulfill their obligation to sell defensive arms to Taiwan. Taiwan’s democracy is incredibly important to the region as a guidepost for other nations to follow. The US must remain fully and firmly committed to the TRA and the “six assurances” and that Taiwan is a major ally, friend and security partner of the United States.

The people of Taiwan have built a prosperous, free, and orderly society with strong institutions, worthy of emulation and envy. The Trump doctrine in foreign policy must make an enduring expression to the people of Taiwan about the US commitment to their well-being, their security, their economic autonomy, and their international space. Preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait remains the focus of China’s military investment. The United States must provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security of the people on Taiwan.

Taiwan must have the capability to defend itself from aggression from China whether of a political, economic or military nature, and it is critical that both Taiwan and China know America’s commitment to Taiwan has not wavered one bit. The one thing that will make armed conflict more likely is weakness, thus it is very important for both Taiwan and the US to build up their military forces. Taiwan faces an unrelenting threat from China, which has about 1,600 ballistic missiles aimed at the island. As long as Taiwan and the US are strong, I don’t think China will ever take any overt military action.

The United States needs a grand strategy to guide its foreign policy. The key premise for this strategy is that Washington should coordinate and deepen its efforts to offer a positive vision for Indo-Pacific connectivity, working constructively with major players to ensure that the region’s huge infrastructure needs are met. The United States can try to hold on to global hegemony as it slips from its grasp or it can learn from British prime minister Clement Attlee‘s mistakes.

The Trump administration’s foreign policy has led to a seismic shift in US economic relations with China. As economic relations between Washington and Beijing continue to evolve, they are impacting not only trade but also investment patterns and innovation between the two countries. At the same time, there are growing concerns about whether the two sides will be able to decouple security concerns from economic growth, and also how relations between the two economic giants will impact Taiwan in particular.

The Trump administration must continue to keep China at bay and forge stronger ties with the island, bringing prosperity and peace to the Asia Pacific.

Also read: US should support Taiwan joining UN

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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