By Marc A. Thiessen
Donald Trump is arguably the most pro-Taiwan president in U.S. history.
On Trump’s watch, U.S. warships sail through the Taiwan Strait — the international waters separating Taiwan from China — on a routine basis, compared with just one to three times a year under Barack Obama. While both Obama and George W. Bush refused Taiwan’s requests to buy U.S. F-16s for fear of provoking Beijing’s ire, Trump approved the fighter-jet sale — the first since 1992. And after the 2016 election, Trump became the first U.S. leader to speak directly with a Taiwanese leader since the United States broke diplomatic relations in 1979 when he accepted a congratulatory call from President Tsai Ing-wen.
That’s good news, because Taiwan has never needed America’s support more than it does now. Recently, the people of Taiwan delivered a stinging rebuke to China when they defeated the pro-Beijing Nationalists and reelected Tsai in a landslide. More than a year ago, Tsai appeared to be finished after her Democratic Progressive Party suffered huge losses to the Nationalists in local elections. But in the election, despite massive Chinese efforts to bolster her opponent, Tsai won a record 8.2 million votes, more than any Taiwanese leader since the start of direct presidential elections in 1996.
What changed? China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, that’s what. Beijing claims Taiwan as a province and wants it to accept Chinese sovereignty under the same “one country, two systems” principle by which it rules Hong Kong. And after watching Beijing trample over Hong Kong, the Taiwanese people want nothing to do with “one country, two systems” and decided to send China a clear message. As Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu said in an interview, “Young voters here in Taiwan, they see the young demonstrators in Hong Kong fighting for their freedom and democracy [and realized] if they don’t come out and try to save our country through the democratic process, Taiwan might become a second Hong Kong.”
If China’s Communist leaders were capable of introspection, they would realize they screwed up. All they had to do was leave Hong Kong alone, continue to collect its riches and watch as the Nationalists in Taiwan took power. Instead, with their brutality, they created a wave of anti-China sentiment in both places.
It is unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping will learn from his mistakes and back off. Instead, China will probably seek to punish Taiwan. The question is in what form that punishment might come. Beijing might seek to coerce Taiwan economically by scrapping trade privileges under the economic cooperation pact it signed with Tsai’s Nationalist predecessor. Like its crackdown in Hong Kong, such a move would backfire on China, pushing Taiwan to diversify its economy and become less dependent on trade with the mainland. The Trump administration has a strategic and economic opportunity to help Taiwan do that by negotiating a new U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement. A free trade deal should be a no-brainer for Trump — a chance to bolster the U.S. economy, increase U.S. exports, raise pressure on China and rack up a big win on Capitol Hill all in one fell swoop.
The more worrisome possibility is that China will respond militarily. The conventional wisdom holds that so long as Taiwan does not declare formal independence, Beijing will not invade. But, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Oriana Skylar Mastro points out, there is a real danger that the lesson Beijing takes from Tsai’s reelection is that “the only way Taiwan will ever reunify with mainland China is at the end of a gun.”
To keep the peace, the United States must enhance its deterrence posture with China. One way to do so would be to deploy new conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles to East Asia. China is aggressively building and deploying such missiles, but the United States was banned from doing so under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. This put the United States at a strategic disadvantage in any military standoff, because China knows our only possible response options in a conflict is to target the mainland with intercontinental ballistic missiles — an unacceptable escalation. Thanks to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, we can now deploy conventional medium-range missiles — a move that would restore U.S. military supremacy in the Pacific and improve our ability to deter Chinese aggression.
As we learned from our recent standoff with Iran, totalitarian regimes have a tendency to miscalculate. It took a military strike to restore deterrence with Iran; we should not wait to restore deterrence with China.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group