The last couple of months have seen a sharpening of policy directives coming out of the Trump administration, mostly targeting China. Excluding the periodic announcements of additional tariffs on Chinese goods, the administration has also issued a swath of other biting moves that seem to mark a policy turnaround for the president who once said that he and Xi Jinping, “will always be friends, no matter what…”
In the last 48 hours, new sanctions were announced on China for its purchase of military equipment from Russia, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, purchases that were made in contravention of sanctions against any firms or states who conduct business with blacklisted groups. China is the first state actor to have been targeted for violating these sanctions, with their EDD (Equipment Development Department), which is the government acquisition group responsible for the purchases, being targeted. China has already threatened the US that if they do not withdraw the sanctions, America will, “bear the consequences,” without elaborating.
Turkey is also in talks to buy the same S-400 missile systems from Russia, creating the potential for their eventual targeting. The state is also apparently angry after having been targeted by the 2018 American Defense Authorization Act, named for John McCain, in which their deliveries for the new F-35 stealth fighter jet have been blocked. Turkey has invested $1.2 billion USD into the development of these jets going back two decades, and already has 30 planes on order, with several actually fulfilled. However, Turkish pilots are still being trained on their operation at Luke AFB in Arizona, and the planes have not yet returned to Turkey.
The bill calls for a report on the impact of Turkish-US relations with 90 days, and a risk assessment of joint operated platforms for several aircraft flown by the NATO ally, whose support for US policy has publicly weakened in recent years. The review was prompted by the already completed Turkish purchase of certain Russian air defense systems, which if used jointly with these new US planes, could expose F-35 vulnerabilities to the Russian systems, and compromise some of its capabilities and support architecture. The Erdogan government and Trump administration have also been sparring in recent weeks over the fate of imprisoned religious leaders in each respective country, which likely exacerbated the tensions between the two states.
In the same act defense authorization act, China was given a gift by Trump, who effectively watered down controls on Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer, ZTE. Intelligence agencies have warned that several Chinese industry leaders are beholden to the central government, and the widespread adoption of their devices presents a risk of espionage, or potential sabotage in the event of a conflict or cyber event. His administration lifted a previous ban on US companies selling equipment to ZTE.
They were initially fined and banned for violating sanctions laws against selling equipment to Iran and North Korea, but the Trump administration decided to soften its position against the Chinese state controlled company.
This week has also seen Russia engaging in military drills this week with China, helping lend their expertise from the recent raft of conflicts to China, who hasn’t fought a military campaign since 1979 when China invaded Vietnam. Russia has been involved in recent years in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, and they are reportedly compiling a textbook to share its lessons from the past decade of conflicts with the Chinese.
In late August, the pentagon released a report, stating unequivocally and publicly that Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maintains contingency plans to invade and occupy North Korea in the event of a crisis. These plans have the potential to undermine American military policy in Asia, and some military experts have even publicly speculated that in the event of an invasion, China could use the mobilization to provide the grounding for an invasion of land in the South China Sea, including possibly the takeover of Taiwan.
August also saw Tsai Ing Wen, the president of Taiwan, stopping over in the United States on her route returning from South America to visit two of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies. Besides the fact that her recognition as a landing head of state irked China, she was also given a tour of Nasa’s mission control complex, becoming the first Taiwanese president to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston. In 2011, a new law prohibited China from working with NASA, because of the risk of espionage, making the image of Taiwan’s leader touring the facility all the more glaring. She was greeted by a crowd of around a thousand people at her hotel, and the media was alerted to her public activities, something that previous administrations have avoided to minimize the reaction from China.
She also made a visit to the Reagan Presidential library at a previous stopover earlier the same week, and the Chinese responded by stating that they “resolutely oppose” the Taiwanese leader maintaining contacts with the United States. She made a public speech in Los Angeles, and went so far as to meet with US officials and lawmakers.
Taken together, there is a lack of coherence in the policy, other than a general trend of increasingly hostile behavior towards states who challenge US dominance. What is clear is that other than the ZTE reprieve, the Trump administration is not afraid at this point to take a much harder stance against China. What this bodes for the region, and whether this translates to a shift in Taiwan policy is still not clear.
Staff writer: Ari B, PhD Student at Taiwan’s Sun Yat Sen University