Trump and Taiwan's Search for World Space

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Tuesday April 3, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Aside from a few diehard pro-unification Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) members, almost all Taiwanese are elated with the recent passage of the US Taiwan Travel Act. It opens doors for more extended contact, shared consultation and recognition.

Similarly, most were pleased in 2016 when President Tsai Ing-wen called then-US President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory. Both happenings made long overdue statements on recognizing the reality of Taiwan's independent sovereign status in the world.

However, lest any be tempted to rest or pat themselves on the back that these accomplishments guarantee Taiwan's salvation, a more proper attitude would be Machiavellian pragmatism. The future must be faced with eyes wide open especially with regards to Trump.

Eyes wide open means recognizing that while all this is beneficial to Taiwan, Trump's administration has its own problems with transparency, credibility, and lack of a consistent strategy. This remains a clear and ever-present danger.

Examine immediate past inconsistencies. The joy over Tsai's telephone call was soon overshadowed by Trump's hosting of Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, Florida. After they tasted "the best chocolate cake ever," Trump indicated that Xi, in 10 minutes, explained how extremely complicated North Korea was and that he, Trump, would now consult with Xi before acting on Taiwan matters.

Fortunately for Taiwan, Trump's mind again flip-flopped in a new direction as he focused on new business leverage for the US. He resorted to heavy trade tariffs not only on China but also even on allies all over the world.

Ironically, Trump then began making a list of exceptions almost as fast as he levied tariffs. He was "winging it" once more.

Put simply, eyes wide open for Taiwan means carefully examining the credibility and challenges that Trump's ‘winging it' creates on the world stage as well as in the US.

He may boast about his intuition and being smarter than his generals but in reality, it is not genius he counts on but hyped subterfuge, lack of transparency and even "lies" to cover up numerous past failures.

Two of his many strong diverse "winging it" failures are found in Trump University and Trump Taj Mahal Casino where like others, tax returns hide how bad they were.

To run a credible university one needs expertise and transparency. Trump University failed on both counts. It was never accredited and quickly became for students a participatory lesson in the "Art of the Con."

Hoping to learn alleged get rich quick secrets of property development, students instead got "motivational pep talks." In Oliver Twist fashion it was "Fagin's school for Artful Dodgers" reborn with a brand name. Students did sue and won their case but they did not get all their money back.

Trump's Taj Mahal Casino provided a different example. Casinos allegedly cannot fail. Even professional gamblers enter a casino knowing that the odds are "rigged in favor of the house." However, a casino must still run a tight ship beyond hype; it cannot wing it.

So how did Trump's casino go bankrupt? One need not go into all the details, but faulty reporting with money laundering and for the rest, Trump's hidden tax returns cover the trail.

Fast forward to the present where "winging it" is found in the revolving door of White House staff appointments. Each appointee is always a hyped "great selection" until six or eight months later when he or she leaves. These here today and gone tomorrow problems exacerbate staff credibility whenever they speak because their words are expected to quickly become yesterday's news.

Whether they be the secretary of state, national security advisor, White House Press Secretary or others, they are not the wisest ones in the room and there is no overall plan.

Even if they say that they speak for Trump, the validity of what they say is too frequently contradicted by the next Trump tweet. For this reason, observers can barely hold back from doing an eye-roll especially when these officials expect to be taken seriously.

As for White House appointments, in place of hidden tax returns, loyalty oaths and non-disclosure agreements such as those signed by a growing number of porn stars now seem to be de rigueur before taking office in this White House-on-the-fly.

Awareness of this lack of strategy increases when one realizes that the US still has over 40 vacant ambassadorships. That does not bode well for the country.

Some will try to excuse these problems with Trump's credibility by stating that Trump's style is to create chaos where two sides fight it out and he reserves the final answer for himself. This might work in pre-scripted reality TV shows such as The Apprentice, but it fails when real people and other national interests are involved.

No, running a country is not like a real-estate deal where the trick is to find prime land and follow the elementary buy-low and sell-high principle. Or when sales can be further aided if one knows clients who want to launder money or escape paying heavy divorce settlement sums in the deal.

This is the world of Trump. His lack of strategy has already managed to insult most US allies in its zero sum game approach. They are learning to distrust his words.

Taiwanese officials, therefore, should not spend too much time trying to figure out and discover a strategy that is not there. The reality is that Trump is winging it.

Instead, Taiwan must understand its own position. It is not able to treat Trump with a tit-for-tat response as the EU or larger nations such as Russia or China do in trade wars.

However, it is a mid-sized nation, and has a strong GDP. It has neighbors like Japan who have much to lose if Taiwan becomes undemocratic. Taiwan also has other allies in Asia and allies within the US.

Taiwan's major threat is still China and if push comes to shove with China's hegemony, Taiwan is a defensible island and well suited to guerilla warfare even after landings have been made. With 23 million people in a tight space, China would further need a tremendous occupying army even if it won.

These are the facts that Taiwan must work with.

One must be Machiavellian and take any given advantages and run. With eyes wide open, and knowing its strengths, Taiwan can both avoid disappointment and profit in the future.