Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with US President-elect Donald Trump at her office in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo: Reuters/Taiwan Presidential Office handout
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with a newly elected Donald Trump in December 2016. Photo: Reuters / Taiwan Presidential Office handout

Ahead of this Tuesday’s presidential election in the US, the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation released the results of a poll finding a majority (53%) of Taiwanese support the re-election of US President Donald Trump, with 31.3% saying they would be “fairly happy,” and another 22% “very happy,” for him to assume a second term.  

Slightly over 30% expressed their displeasure over the prospect of a Trump re-election, with 17.6% saying they would “not be very happy” and 13.9% “not happy at all,” with 15.5% saying they had “no opinion,” did not know or declined to answer. 

Of those polled, 33.6% said they supported Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with 16.9% supporting the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT).

The findings generally reflect those of other polls, including YouGov, a global public opinion and data company based in the UK, whose poll published on October 15 found that Taiwanese show greater support for Trump (42%) than for the challenger Joe Biden (30%).  Taiwan is the only country surveyed by YouGov where the support for Trump is greater than that for Biden.

Why is Trump so popular in Taiwan?

The popularity of Trump in Taiwan can be traced to the collapse of trade talks with Beijing, and the growing anti-China sentiment in his administration and the US Congress. 

Since Tsai Ing-wen assumed the Taiwanese presidency in 2016 and subsequently refused to accept that both sides of the Strait belong to “one China,” Beijing has been applying diplomatic, economic, political, and military pressure on Taiwan to draw international support away from her government. 

Perversely, in so doing, Beijing has sparked greater international support for Taiwan and incited the Trump administration and Congress to focus their support on Taiwan as a way to push back against Beijing’s aggression.   

This support for Taiwan is evidenced by the US State Department approvals in recent days of some $3.2 billion in defense-weapon systems for the island. 

Strong bipartisan support for Taiwan is also evident on Capitol Hill, with 59 bills currently proposed covering Taiwan, following overwhelming support for such legislation as the Taiwan Travel Act and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, which were signed into law by President Trump. 

(It should be noted that the president is fairly obliged to forgo a veto of any legislation that has significant support from Congress.)

A history of sharp reversals

Yes, the Trump administration has recently been good to Taiwan, but what many Taiwanese appear to be glossing over with their latest support are their earlier fears that Trump would treat Taiwan as a pawn in the chess game of the US-China trade deal. 

Back in 2016, Trump told Fox News he fully understood the “one China” policy, “but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”  

Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton revealed in his memoir how his boss repeatedly disparaged the significance of Taiwan, writing, “Although it came in several variations, one of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpie [markers] and say, ‘this is Taiwan,’ then point to [his desk in the Oval Office] and say, ‘this is China.’

As any prospects of a near-term US-China trade deal are remote while Trump is riding a wave of anti-China sentiment, could a re-elected, very transaction-focused Trump with a history of sharp reversals sacrifice Taiwan to cut a trade deal with China in the next two or three years, or over “other things” such as the South China Sea or North Korea?  

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei. Twitter@ForeignDevil666