Taiwan, China and the U.S. Presidential Election

From Taiwan’s perspective, Hillary Clinton appears to be the pick of the litter among U.S. presidential candidates. Jeb Bush? Not so much
Photo: REUTERS/Greg Baker/Pool
Peter Enav

It is still 14 months until U.S. voters go the polls to elect a new president. So far, most of the campaign has focused on domestic issues like immigration policy and income distribution. The occasional foreign affairs foray has mostly involved Republican condemnations of President Barack Obama for his supposed tendency to turn his back on traditional American allies in favor of dubious deal making with American enemies — Iran in particular. Taiwan hasn’t been mentioned at all, but Donald Trump and a few of his Republicans rivals have excoriated Democrats for allegedly treating China with kid gloves on trade and other issues. They see this as part of an overall pattern of Democratic Party foreign policy wimpishness.

Where China and Taiwan are concerned, U.S. presidential election cycles usually follow a well-established pattern. Before the election takes place, candidates tend to adopt a hard China line, with a few even speaking out in favor of improving ties with Taipei, which lost American diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. Ronald Reagan was the exemplar of this approach, insisting in his 1980 run that he would restore ties with Taiwan in their entirety as part of a hardheaded approach to China. Of course he did nothing of the kind.

That’s before the election. But after a candidate wins he (or she) generally ditches his/her China skepticism and rushes headlong to engage the country economically and politically. For the most part this reflects the substantial power of corporate and other donors, who have their eye on the bottom line. Not for them half-baked liberal concerns about Chinese human rights abuses and other supposed slights to American political sensitivities — predatory trade policies, for example, or environmental degradation. Far more important in their bottom line calculations is China’s potentially game changing contribution to addressing a whole range of crucial international problems — global financial management and nuclear proliferation in particular. This implacable meme is often accompanied by knowing assertions that working closely with China has the undeniable benefit of pushing Beijing toward internal political liberalization, which (or so it seems to them) is very close to their hearts. In just this way, the donors contend, they are actually great humanitarians who care deeply about the political rights of the Chinese people.

In this election cycle, however, things could get a bit messy for them. This is because the Obama administration has begun ever so gently to challenge the notion that the U.S. and China can actually work together for the good of the world as a whole. This improbable claim has now run up against the uncomfortable reality of greater Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea, insistent Chinese hacking of sensitive U.S. computer systems, and questionable Chinese exchange rate policy, just to mention the most conspicuous of China’s recent political transgressions. In consequence, the administration is now much more skeptical of Chinese intentions than it was in November 2009 when Obama visited China to generally critical reviews. It is, of course not yet at the point where it is ready to challenge China head on in the western Pacific, or for that matter mention Taiwan by name within the context of its highly vaunted Pacific pivot. But it is still a little bit peeved.

All of this is important because it means that the U.S.- China bar has been raised after some 35 years of stasis — after all, we are talking about one of the most durable and immutable bilateral relationships in the world here — and American presidential candidates are starting their campaigns with harder China attitudes than any of their predecessors since 1972. The question is, will this have any impact once the election is over, or will the candidates revert to the tried and true China accommodationist mode of previous election cycles?

The following survey tries to offer some insight by looking at major policy pronouncements and other relevant indicators from all the leading presidential candidates. It begins with Hillary Clinton, who has arguably been the hardest on recent Chinese behavior, at least as a government official.

As early as 2010, Clinton told an ASEAN conference in Hanoi that from her perspective as American Secretary of State, stability in the South China Sea was a vital American interest and not some passing bagatelle. This was a polite way of saying that the U.S. was not much amused by China’s escalating claims to disputed South China Sea real estate, which over the previous 12 months or so had begun to rankle traditional American allies like the Philippines and even China-friendly Singapore. A subsequent Clinton article in Foreign Policy (“America’s Pacific Century”) laid the groundwork for the U.S.’ pivot to the Pacific strategy, which many in China came to interpret as a transparent American attempt to stymie the country’s economic and political rise. Clinton’s 2014 memoir Hard Choices took her China critique one step further, raising the disquieting notion that not only was China not “a responsible stakeholder” in the Asia-Pacific region, but that it was actually a disruptive presence on the international scene as a whole. Underscoring this claim she wrote that when President Obama “received a noticeably lukewarm reception” during his November 2009 visit to China, “many observers wondered whether we were seeing a new phase in the (Sino-American) relationship, with an ascendant and assertive China no longer hiding its resources and enhanced military capabilities, moving away from ‘hide and bide’ and toward ‘show and tell.’”

Clinton has also been remarkably outspoken on Taiwan, particularly within the context of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) geopolitically potent China-friendly policies, which began immediately after his election in 2008. In a 2014 interview with Taiwan’s Business Weekly magazine, Clinton criticized those policies strongly, saying they could eventually result in a loss of Taiwan’s economic and political independence. Underscoring the point, she compared Taiwan to the Ukraine, where Russian separatists were then working hard trying to undo the country’s democracy and return it to Moscow’s orbit.

“Economic independence goes with political independence,” Clinton said in the interview. “How far can you go before you lose your economic independence? Because it will affect your political independence.”

She added that Taiwan was then facing a series of fateful decisions, which, she said, would have a profound impact on its ability to maintain its democracy.

“Now you have to decide how dependent economically you become… How… do you handle the [cross-strait] relationship, if you say this far, but no farther?” Clinton said. “That will put pressure on you from China, if they want more, but you have to make these evaluations based on what you think is in the long-term interest of Taiwan.”

Clinton’s interview was remarkable, because it clearly suggested that she recognized the strategic importance to the U.S. of Taiwan’s fortuitous location in the geographical center of the first island chain, which gives it the ability to prevent the spread of Chinese naval power eastward, including toward critical American military assets like Guam. In this respect, she has been unique among serious American presidential candidates in the 2016 elections, who have either ignored the issue entirely or more probably are simply unaware of it, which is usually par for the course for otherwise well-informed American politicians.

In sharp contrast to Clinton, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has rarely spoken out on China, though he did vote in favor of 2005 legislation threatening sanctions against foreign individuals or countries selling weapons to Beijing. That having been said, his strong anti-corporate stance suggests a marked unwillingness to help underwrite expanding Sino-American commercial cooperation, largely because he sees it as unfairly taking away jobs from American workers. Accordingly, he would not be putty in the hands of well-placed China lobbyists in the U.S., who over most of the past 35 years have generally got what they wanted. He would probably show them his back.

Vice President Joe Biden is not yet a declared candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries, though he may soon jump in, presumably by mid-October. Over the past seven years his China policy has faithfully followed the line of President Obama, which has veered from seeing the country as a preferred partner for addressing the world’s most intractable problems to greater and greater skepticism about its political and military intentions. Were he to actually become president (and Hillary Clinton’s escalating email problems now make that an outside possibility), it is likely he would continue in Obama’s cautious vein, chiding Beijing for its aggressive stance in the South China Sea, but not so forcefully as to cause it real offense. As for Taiwan, he would almost certainly keep it at arm’s length, much as Obama has done throughout his presidency. As far as is known Biden has never spoken out definitively on Taiwan’s future course, aside from predictably parroting the ritual “one China” language contained in the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué.

On the Republican side of the ledger, former Florida governor Jeb Bush is the corporate candidate par excellence, having made no secret of his desire to improve relations with China, which by his lights suffered unnecessarily under President Obama. In a January 2012 meeting in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), Bush said he was committed to further developing economic and other ties between the sides, even while abjuring from any overt criticism of Chinese economic or military policies. His foreign policy brain trust includes former secretaries of state James Baker and George Shultz, both of whom favor close cooperation with Beijing. He has long spoken out forcefully on supposed communist repression in Cuba, but has never echoed that criticism about China, which is much in keeping with his “show me the money” foreign policy. Of all the candidates in the 2016 American presidential election, he is almost certainly the most China-friendly.

In sharp contrast to Bush, real estate mogul and reality TV show host Donald Trump is a died-in-the-wool China skeptic, having repeatedly made it clear that he thinks China has consistently taken the U.S. to the cleaners under the supposedly flaccid leadership of President Obama. He promises that under an uber-muscular Trump presidency that will stop in its tracks, though his self-proclaimed propensity for mega-deal-making inevitably raises questions about the seriousness of his China policy. The bottom line here is that he is totally unpredictable on how he would handle China, not to mention virtually every other important policy issue, except of course himself, which is surely his favorite thing. Only in the U.S. could such a man be taken seriously as a presidential candidate.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has often sounded tough on China, repeatedly criticizing it for its aggressive chance in the South China Sea, while reassuring voters that they actually have little to fear from it economically, because it doesn’t know how to innovate or apply creative solutions to vexing business problems. But given her corporate background, it is highly unlikely that she would confront Beijing over any of the critical issues dividing the two countries. Rather, she could be expected to indulge it commercially and in other ways as well, albeit with considerable discretion. In that sense she would be a typical Republican president, catering to the expansive China needs of the American business community, while blithely ignoring Taiwan.

The rest of the Republican field has not yet commented about China very much, so it is difficult to know how they would approach it. Still, none of these Republican candidates can realistically be expected to adopt a particularly confrontational China policy line, with the possible exception of tea party favorite Ted Cruz, who really sounds quite serious about his repeated condemnations of despotic regimes. But it is doubtful he could ever get elected. The same is also true for Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Ben Carson, none of whom are exactly burning up the public opinion polls. By contrast, John Kasich might actually have a chance to get the nomination, particularly if Jeb Bush continues his muddled act on the campaign trail. Kasich has criticized China’s stance in the South China Sea, though such criticism should probably be taken with a grain of salt, not least because it is easy to make it now, when it really doesn’t matter. The true test begins only when one becomes president, and that is well in the future.

So what can we learn from all of this preliminary election analysis? To begin with, Hillary Clinton is by far the most sympathetic presidential candidate from Taipei’s perspective, while Jeb Bush is arguably the worst. Bernie Sanders would not be a bad choice for Taiwan either, but his left wing credentials make it highly unlikely he could ever be elected.

It is also worth pointing out that notwithstanding growing American skepticism toward Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, Sino-American ties are very firmly rooted, and won’t be easily changed. Accordingly, Taiwan should probably not expect much of an American embrace, regardless of who becomes president after the 2016 elections — at least in the short term. Change — if it does eventually occur — will come only gradually and will not be easy to see. Caution will keep it at bay.


Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.

3 Responses to “Taiwan, China and the U.S. Presidential Election”

August 23, 2015 at 10:50 am, Dave Hall said:

Hillary Clinton would be the most supportive of Taiwan as evidenced by her statements quoted in the article. It’s important that in the Taiwanese Presidential election in a few months that the US government not get involved and support the KMT as they have in the past or risk alienating the voters on the island. Stay neutral.


August 23, 2015 at 11:58 am, Torch Pratt said:

WOW! Comprehensive and well-researched analysis. I love this. Thank you so much! 😀


August 26, 2015 at 5:07 pm, Mike Fagan said:

“…Taiwan should probably not expect much of an American embrace, regardless of who becomes president…”

Then quite what the purpose of this article was is not clear.

Nonetheless an argument that Mr Enav has his recommendations the wrong way around can still be made.

To paraphrase a certain Mr Rumsfeld from ten years ago, Hillary Clinton is a known unknown. Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s statements on Taiwan indicate potential support in the event of a diplomatic or military crisis, but one must also consider the possibility that she simply “misspoke” as she has done more than once in the past. There is also the possibility that her “support” for Taiwan might end up lost in emails recorded on a server stashed in some bloke’s toilet cupboard. So rather than take Der Rodham’s proclamations at face value, it would be wiser to assume that her apparent support for Taiwan depends not on anything like principle, but merely on whether Taiwan happens to be a useful tool for her or not at the time. The wonder is not that Trump is taken seriously – he isn’t – but that Der Rodham still commands support in the media twenty two years on.

By all means let the next U.S. president be a woman, but let’s have a person who actually tries to communicate by reference to the facts rather than one who slips away by trying to manipulate the non-facts.


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