U.S.-Taiwan Relations under the Trump Administration


On January 9, the Center for the National Interest hosted an event focusing on U.S.-Taiwan relations under the incoming Trump Administration. Director of Defense Studies at the Center and Executive Editor of The National Interest, Harry J. Kazianis, moderated the discussion between Kurt Campbell, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Asia Group, LLC and one of the architects of the “pivot” to Asia under President Obama, Gordon Chang, the co-host of the nationally syndicated John Bachelor Show and author of the books The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, and Wallace C. Gregson, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs from 2009 to 2011 and the Senior Director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest. A summary of the event can be found below. Footage of the event was broadcast live by The National Interest on Facebook and can be viewed online here.

U.S.-Taiwan Relations under the Trump Administration

Taiwan has recently reemerged into the spotlight due in large part to President-Elect Trump’s December phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Growing tensions with Beijing over U.S.-Taiwan relations have many questioning the future of the United States’ relations with the People’s Republic of China under the Trump Administration. Will the U.S. maintain the status-quo in its relations with China or should one expect to see a fundamental change in policy moving forward, and, just as important, how will China respond?

Kurt Campbell stressed that understanding the meaning and the implications of the conversation between President-Elect Trump and President Tsai is difficult due to the uncertainty surrounding it. Campbell pointed out that China was the only Asian country that stated it was prepared for a Trump Presidency, yet there is now a significant amount of anxiety in Beijing over what to expect moving forward and how to proceed in their relationship with the U.S. According to Campbell, the current environment suggests that the two people who matter most in this bilateral relationship are Chinese President Xi and President-Elect Trump, as the former has concentrated decision-making authority in his hands and the latter has indicated that U.S.-China relations will be managed at the highest level.

Campbell stated that when it comes to the traditional cornerstones of U.S. policy in Asia, he is most concerned about the state of the United States’ alliances (particularly with Japan) and collapsing support for trade. However, Campbell’s overall assessment of the U.S.’s position in Asia is optimistic: the U.S. has made some progress in its pivot to Asia, but much more needs to be done.

Gordon Chang contended that Taiwan’s rising profile in the Asia-Pacific region merits recognition by the United States. According to Chang, it is no longer worthwhile for the U.S. or its partners to give priority to China’s conflicting interests in the region. Moreover, China is in trouble—asserts Chang—due to growing debt, money outflows, and increasingly coercive (and unsustainable) governance. Regional governments are reacting to these changes and to provocations from China by falling in behind Taiwan and drawing together to create defense links among themselves.

Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson argued that the makeup of modern Taiwan—a functioning democracy in which 85% of the total population self-identifies as Taiwanese—must be taken into account as the U.S. begins to adjust its policy. Gregson also stated that President Tsai is a rational and patient leader that understands the importance of maintaining balance in Taiwan’s relations with the U.S. and China.

China, on the other hand, has increased its military activities and aggressive rhetoric against Taiwan, according to Gregson. He stated that U.S. strategy regarding Taiwan is complex, but the U.S. government believes that a secure and confident Taiwan is better able to constructively engage Beijing. A potential conflict with Taiwan is also a key driver of China’s military investments, according to Gregson. Gregson said the U.S. must question how exactly Washington is benefiting from their relationship with China and be less concerned about risking that relationship by supporting Taiwan.

When questioned about the danger of backing Taiwan’s independence, Campbell believes that the region’s governments are actually seeking a more stable relationship with China. He emphasized the importance of avoiding Cold War-like divisions. Furthermore, Chang said he is not necessarily sure that relations with China will worsen if the U.S. enhances its relations with Taiwan.