Washington – The U.S. government’s decision to send its most senior official to Taiwan in four decades is another clear sign that President Donald Trump is pushing ahead with his hardline stance on China, believing that it better serves his interest in getting re-elected in November.
Experts say the Trump administration is likely to continue to strengthen its ties with Taiwan, over which China claims sovereignty, adding further tension to the U.S.-China relationship, which is already fraught with disputes ranging from trade, technology, Hong Kong and control of the South China Sea.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is the first U.S. Cabinet member to visit the self-ruled island in six years and the highest-level U.S. visitor since 1979, the year Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, according to the U.S. government.
Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. It is also particularly wary of any U.S. moves that appear to be official contact with the island.
The Trump administration has enhanced its support to Taiwan to deter China, such as by selling arms including F-16 fighter jets and sending warships to conduct transits through the Taiwan Strait. But it had not sent a Cabinet member to Taiwan until now.
Behind the decision was apparently a shift in stance by Trump caused by the coronavirus pandemic, said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
The coronavirus, which was first detected in China late last year, has upended Trump’s re-election strategy, which was built on having a strong U.S. economy. With the global economy paralyzed by the pandemic, however, his hard-fought partial trade deal with China is also crumbling as it appears to be difficult for Beijing to live up to its commitment to purchase large amounts of U.S. farm and other products.
“I think that up until the signing of the trade deal in January the president did have concerns about doing some things with Taiwan, and particularly sending a Cabinet secretary, that might upset the trade negotiations with China,” Glaser said.
“But…the president now has made it clear that he’s so angry at China because of its role in the pandemic that he’s willing to take actions that he wasn’t willing to take in the past,” she added.
Over the past months, Trump has blamed China for failing to stop the spread of the virus “at the source,” apparently to take advantage of the rising antipathy toward China in the United States and deflect criticism that his repeated downplaying of the threat from the virus exacerbated the public health crisis.
The Trump administration has also turned up the heat on China’s hasty attempt to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, its assertiveness in the South China Sea, and suspected intellectual property theft, making it clear that China-bashing has become a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.
But Glaser was skeptical the high-level visit to Taiwan will be a “watershed” moment in the relationship between the world’s two largest economies.
“To me this is very much consistent with what we’ve seen as an overall trend of the United States strengthening its ties with Taiwan — that includes good communication — and I expect we will see more, including arms sales,” she said.
“It was Trump’s reluctance to put excessive pressure on China that has prevented the sending of a Cabinet secretary so far, and so now that is just not a factor in the president’s decision-making any longer,” she added.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a news conference that Azar’s visit is “consistent with policies of previous times.”
Cabinet-level officials have visited Taiwan several times since the 1990s, most recently in 2014 by then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, under the previous administration of President Barack Obama.
Glaser also said that the Chinese side is unlikely to “overreact” to an action that has been taken less than three months before the U.S. presidential election.
“They recognize that we are in campaign season, they know that the Trump administration is going to do much more,” she said, adding, “I think the Chinese are concerned about the future stability of the U.S.-China relationship.”
Former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was ousted last September by Trump, wrote in a recently published memoir that it was hard to find any significant Trump decision “that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations.”
Glaser said that while the Chinese have recognized they gained little from multiyear diplomacy with the Trump administration, they are unlikely to abandon it at this moment.