Last week I had an experience that I suspect has become quite common for foreigners living in Taiwan: talking to a Taiwanese who was an ardent fan of soon-to-be-former US President Donald Trump.
As I was heading for the stairs to my apartment, my landlady stopped me, eyes alight, with an idea for what to do about storing my bike downstairs. The conversation eventually veered into politics, and for a full 35 minutes she held forth on the manifold greatness of world-savior Donald Trump.
She’s neither unkind nor a fool. Pro-Taiwan, she detests former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and can cogently explain why, without reference to tribalistic cliches. She is generous and hardworking, grounded in dollars-and-cents, and well-liked by her tenants. Yet her discussion of Trump consisted of flights of reality-twisting fantasy that would make Salvador Dali giddy with envy.
My first instinct, as I assume it is for many readers, was to patiently explain why Trump is the worst and most destructive president the US has ever known. She overrode my polite objections like a train squashing out a penny flat. I found myself just standing there and listening, utterly flummoxed, as she thundered on about why I had no understanding of the world and of the greatness of Trump.
I have been having versions of this conversation repeatedly in the weeks since the election with all sorts of Taiwanese. Pro-Trump propaganda has flooded newspapers here and, I suspect, social media platforms and apps almost entirely out of the sight of foreigners. Taiwanese have imbibed the same heady, toxic brew that has poisoned US politics, via the same platforms and media sources. We foreigners will be hearing about Trump for years to come.
Discussing this with knowledgeable long-term foreign and local friends here, our first conclusion was that we should publish something in Chinese in one of the major dailies to address the Trumpism problem here. You know, use the outmoded, useless facts-and-evidence approach, which has had precisely zero effect on my Taiwanese friends who think that President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) thesis is fake (or plagiarized, or a post-election construction, or whatever, accusations mutate hourly, like bacteria) or the assassination attempt on former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) plot, or that if only things were more authoritarian, the economy would magically revert to 1970s-era growth rates.
Photo: Lu Yi-hsuan, Taipei Times
Facts don’t work when people incorporate fantasies into their social identities. Studies have shown this, again and again. What should we do? Take another approach: focus on Taiwan’s core interests across time, and downplay Trump, a colossal failure who is shortly going to pass into history, in any case.
One way I comforted myself when Trump was elected was by telling myself it would only be four years, and then we’d have a sane president again. This is what we need to tell Taiwanese every time there is an election, regardless of which party is in power or who is control of Congress: this administration will only last four years. When dealing with US-Taiwan policy, it almost always pays to take the long view: in four years Taiwan’s problems will still be there, but the administration will be gone. This means we foreigners should be saying that Taiwanese need to stop regarding individual presidents as good or bad for Taiwan, since they will soon be gone, and start focusing on what Taiwan needs.
No single presidential administration is ever going to solve or even address all of Taiwan’s problems, and every administration has been a morass of contradictions on Taiwan. The administration of Barack Obama let China run rampant in the South China Sea and across Southeast Asia, where Beijing has been slowly turning Laos and Cambodia into protectorates. The much-hailed “pivot” was underfunded, empty noise. That administration also attacked Tsai in the 2012 election, gravely and stupidly harming both the US and Taiwan. Yet the Obama administration sold Taiwan an enormous pile of weapons.
The Bush administration jumped into the fray with both feet, initially promising it would defend Taiwan to the death. By 2008 it had informally frozen arms sales to Taiwan. Admiral Timothy Keating, then commander of US forces in the Pacific, stated in June of that year that not only had the US frozen arms sales to Taiwan, it was consulting with Beijing before selling arms to Taiwan. The Bush administration even scolded Taiwan and then-President Chen for “provoking” China, because it was trying to work with China on issues it considered important.
Yet that same Bush administration went to bat for Taiwan in 2007 when then UN secretary-general Ban-ki Moon said that the UN considered Taiwan to be part of China, refuting his claims and noting that many major nations, including the US, took the position that under international law Taiwan’s status remains undecided.
There’s a lesson there for Taiwanese: whatever the position of individual American policymakers on Taiwan — and there are many who know the country and have a deep affection for it — Taiwan is usually treated as a tool, to be used or dropped as the US seeks to punish or conciliate Beijing. That is why, we need to be telling them, Taiwanese need to focus on Taiwan’s needs when communicating with the US, instead of tying themselves to one administration and deploring the next.
These contradictions also show how US policy toward Taiwan, despite temporary shifts, at its core remains stable, something Taiwanese can use to their advantage.
The Trump Administration offered this same blend of contradictions. Trump sold Taiwan weapons and gave us the Tsai-Trump Call. Just this week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US has lifted internal US rules governing official interactions between the US government and Taiwan. It has also attempted to push back against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Outside observers have repeatedly declared that the Trump Administration is the most pro-Taiwan ever. If the world were limited to Taiwan and the US, that would indeed be true.
Unfortunately, that same Trump Administration wrecked US standing in the world (Taiwanese are almost completely ignorant of this) and gutted US foreign policy. The Trump Administration angered America’s allies, leaving the impression that the US could not be relied on and its officials were ideological buffoons and looters who did not understand events. Europe ignored the US in concluding its suicidal investment pact with Beijing. Trump did little about Xinjiang and nothing for Hong Kong. In Southeast Asia Chinese influence continues to grow. Nothing in this vast swath of neglect and destruction was good for Taiwan.
Given all this, we foreigners should constantly be explaining: it doesn’t matter who holds power in the US, Taiwanese need to approach every administration with the same goals. Taiwan needs a bilateral trade pact with the US. It needs weapons and, more importantly, long-term military cooperation. It needs a strong US-led alliance system in Asia. It needs concrete responses to China’s expansionism, which is aimed squarely at Taipei. It needs cooperation on global warming and renewable energy development. It needs the US to help it enter global organizations and institutions and increase its profile and standing in the world. It needs the US to foster a closer relationship with Japan and between Taiwan and Japan. Above all, Taiwanese need to struggle to prevent Taiwan from becoming a partisan political issue that one party supports and the other automatically opposes.
The incoming administration of Joe Biden with its new “Asia Czar” Kurt Campbell is not going to be any different than previous administrations. It is shackled by the same constraints as previous administrations, and it faces the same set of long-term problems. Campbell knows Taiwan and is an experienced Asia hand. He has even written that engagement with China has failed, showing that he has a good understanding of the China issue. Pro-Taiwan types I know are quietly pleased with much of what they see in the new Biden administration.
Yet it is easy to predict that the US will continue to see Taiwan through the lenses of Washington’s engagement with China, and hence, its Taiwan policy will bounce around US core Taiwan policy like a late-night drunk driver orbiting the double yellow line in the middle of the road.
Thus, we need to be telling our Taiwanese friends and loved ones: remember, whatever happens, in four years, this too shall pass. Let’s focus on increasing military cooperation, or trade and investment, or strengthening the alliance system, or…
Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by long-term resident Michael Turton, who provides incisive commentary informed by three decades of living in and writing about his adoptive country.
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