At the top of the Old Tianmu Trail in Taipei sits an unusual neighborhood of one-story American-style suburban ranch houses. Many of the houses are in decrepit shape, though some have been remodeled as restaurants and high-end residences. The houses were originally built to accommodate United States Armed Forces sent during the Korean War to defend Taiwan from an impending attack by mainland Chinese forces.
As Michael Green recounts in his new book By More than Providence, US president Harry Truman ordered the dispatch of the Seventh Fleet to Taiwanese waters in the wake of the Soviet-backed attack on South Korea and Chinese plans for the invasion of Taiwan. Truman told the American public that “in these circumstances, the occupation of Formosa by Communist forces would be a direct threat to the security of the Pacific area.”
US troops were eventually withdrawn from Taiwan in 1979, and nowadays, hikers from Taipei converge on the area to take selfies and enjoy the peace and serenity. The calm, however, belies the building storm across the strait.
Tensions have risen ever since Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in China in 2012 and Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s president in 2016. Xi hopes to include the return of Taiwan as part of his “Great Rejuvenation” plan for China. Tsai’s refusal to affirm the “1992 Consensus,” which refers to the one-China principle, has greatly annoyed Beijing. In March, Xi moved closer to his goal, as the National People’s Congress in Beijing granted his wish to rule indefinitely.
At the March congress, Xi reaped his loudest applause in a not-so-subtle warning to Taipei, “All acts and tricks to split the motherland are doomed to failure and will be condemned by the people and punished by history.” Xi has backed these words with psychological pressure on the Taiwanese, isolating Taipei diplomatically, offering incentives to Taiwanese to relocate to the mainland, flying air-force sorties around the island, and sailing his aircraft carrier along the line dividing the mainland from Taiwan.
To date, there has been limited reaction from the US, which under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, signed in the wake of then-president Jimmy Carter’s termination of diplomatic relations, is obligated to provide for the defense of Taiwan. But that may quickly change.
On March 16, US President Donald Trump signed into law the Taiwan Travel Act, which recommends reciprocal visits between Taiwanese and American high-level government officials. A visit took place a few days later, with Alex Wong, a deputy assistant secretary at the US State Department, arriving in Taipei and dining with President Tsai. Beijing vented its anger the following day by sailing its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait.
With the appointment of John Bolton as the new US national security adviser, things could get even stormier across the Taiwan Strait. Bolton, a former United Nations ambassador under president George W Bush and a recent Fox News contributor, is known for his unrepentant support of the Iraq war and has spoken out against the Iran nuclear deal while advocating regime change in Tehran.
On Taiwan, Bolton has been equally hawkish, suggesting in a January 2017 commentary that Washington “could enhance its East Asia military posture by increasing US military sales to Taiwan and by again stationing military personnel and assets there.” Bolton argues that Taiwan is closer to the Chinese mainland and disputed islands in the South China Sea than either Okinawa or Guam – giving US forces “greater flexibility for rapid deployment throughout the region should the need arise.”
The appointment of Bolton as national security adviser appears to signify a shift by Trump toward a harder foreign-policy line, and may embolden a push to locate US troops on Taiwanese soil again. Yet should the Taiwanese government invite US troops, Beijing would consider the invitation highly provocative and respond with some form of face-saving force.
Tsai will have to consider carefully the ramifications of responding positively to any gestures from the ever-mercurial Trump and the hawkish Bolton, even with ironclad security guarantees from Washington.