June has not been kind to US allies. First, the G7 summit saw them reacting in disbelief as the Trump Administration slammed them with steel tariffs.
Given China’s domination of this field – it produces more than the rest of the world combined – this disbelief soon turned to horror as the President proposed that Russia be allowed back into the G7, apparently unconditionally.
In Singapore, the President’s agreement seemed to ignore Japanese concerns over the abductees issue and conservative South Korean concerns over joint military exercises.
Only one ally had reason to be satisfied by this month – and that is Taiwan.
Choosing the very day that President Trump was going to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, the Department of State cleverly masked the re-opening of a large new embassy in Taipei. Naturally, the building is called the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), but it is to all intents and purposes an embassy. And why shouldn’t it be? Taiwan remains one of the strongest US partners in the Asia-Pacific region; the 22nd largest global economy; and a supporter of the rules-based order.
Furthermore, it is a democracy and has increasingly become a standard-bearer for many of the liberal values that are cherished in the West. It was the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage and, in August 2016, it became the first Asian country to apologise to its indigenous population.
Similar to Australia, the US and other Western “off-shoots”, Taiwan’s Han-Chinese majority settled the island around 400 years ago, displacing the indigenous Polynesian peoples. In a ceremony rife with emotion, President Tsai Ing-wen stated “each regime that came to Taiwan has brutally violated indigenous people’s existing rights through military might and land looting” before calling for reconciliation and national unity.
One hopes that Tsai’s bold example might encourage Japan to follow in Taiwan’s footsteps with its own Ainu peoples … or Vietnam with the Hmong, or Russia with the Chukchi tribal peoples, or China with the Uighurs.
The contrast between the two states that claim to China could not be greater. As Taiwan continues to work through a new Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee, Beijing has reached back to its Cultural Revolution historical legacy to create ‘re-education camps’ for 120,000 Uighur Muslims. They are forbidden from growing “abnormal” beards and full-face coverings, as the Communist Party of China clamps down on religious groups that might favour “separatism”. It makes the current shift on its China policy in Washington all the more poignant and significant.
For US policy on China has changed, fundamentally. Despite the back-and-forth trade issues, on ZTE, and negotiations over tariffs, it’s clear that the entire policy landscape in Washington has moved on China. This can be seen in the US president’s closest advisors – Peter Navarro in the White House, and Matthew Pottinger in the National Security Council – all of whom are more cautious about engaging with China and more aware of China’s strategic ambitions vis-a-vis the United States than previous advisors.
They are also said to be much more “pro-Taiwan” than previous advisors around a president and this stems from both China’s own movement back toward one-man rule, and its continual ambition to overtake the US in the Indo-Pacific and globally.
Furthermore, this shift from China to Taiwan seems to be a new offshoot of the new China scepticism. Across the policy landscape in Washington, policy analysts on both sides of the aisle have begun to shift their thinking on the two countries called China.
To be fair, it’s less about what Taipei has done right – though there is much it has done right – and more about what Beijing has done wrong. For a country that has studied its adversaries so much, and sought to placate opposition to its rise, Communist Party leaders still don’t really understand the West. They don’t get the different between state-funded propagandists and genuinely-independent journalists. They don’t get the difference between lobbying for influence and subverting democracy. They don’t get the difference between development for local needs and development for China’s needs. They don’t get the difference between soft power and sharp power. They don’t get why Xi Jinping’s decision to get rid of term limits had such a negative effect in the West (or in China, for that matter). They don’t see that in his rush to consolidate the appearance of power, President Xi has expended all the soft power garnered by the past three Chinese leaders combined. One can see this in the shift among elites on China in New Delhi, in Canberra, in Seoul, in Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore – evident at the last Shangri La Dialogue.
Given the difference in size, the mainland’s large population and its economic dominance, its insistent hectoring of Taiwan, its cutting off of diplomatic support, and petty squabbles with airlines is beginning to look increasingly like insecurity. Despite all its power and growing military might, China is less and less liked on the international stage. Taiwan, therefore, stands as a mirror to Beijing’s distorted system of governance and its increasingly Orwellian society.
For that reason, the Trump Administration’s desire to re-energise its diplomacy through the AIT is to be lauded. Frankly, we should all be doing it. Taiwan may need all our help in the not-too-distant future.