East Asia Forum
Date: 23 August 2020
By: Douglas Paal, Carnegie Endowment
Since April, the administration of US President Donald Trump has been ratcheting up its rhetoric and actions regarding China. This strategy is intended to deflect blame for its mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic at home. It is having the side effect of appearing to dismantle the policy of ‘engagement’ with China of the previous seven US administrations and the way they treated Taiwan.
Trump sent Alex Azar, his Secretary of Health and Human Services, to visit Taiwan earlier this August. Azar is the first senior-level official of the Trump administration to do so, and the first since 2014 when the then head of the Environmental Protection Agency visited the island on behalf of then president Barack Obama.
Given the context of deteriorating US ties with China, rising anti-Chinese rhetoric and the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue to Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a ‘core interest’, the visit seems to come as close to crossing one of China’s ‘red lines’ as possible.
Attention to Taiwan at this level is not a hallmark of the Trump administration. Trump first alarmed China when, as president-elect in November 2016, he accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. But buyer’s remorse set in on both the Trump and Tsai camps shortly after. The Trump administration quickly retreated to the behaviour and formulas of previous US governments on dealing with Taiwan.