Shaping a Trump Template in Foreign Policy: The Taiwan Case

By Robbin Laird

It should be no surprise that President-elect Trump is going to neither follow the traditional approach to foreign policy nor accept the existing order inherited from the previous administrations.

Apparently, there still is surprise with regard to the fact that he considers the inherited foreign policy “elite” more as high priests of the past than as sirens for guiding future policy.

Although such a stance, as he shapes his own policies and style, is creating discomfort.

But if one believes that the current system which gave us the Iran deal, endless engagement in ground wars in the Middle East, and a China which has expanded its soft and hard power with little regard for the “global commons,” and a Russia led by a man pursuing realpolitik, then why would you follow the inherited template?

But what we learn from The New York Times is only that Trump is not performing as a President should and that his “breezy calls to world leaders leave diplmots aghast.”

President-elect Donald J. Trump inherited a complicated world when he won the election last month.

And that was before a series of freewheeling phone calls with foreign leaders that has unnerved diplomats at home and abroad.

In the calls, he voiced admiration for one of the world’s most durable despots, the president of Kazakhstan, and said he hoped to visit a country, Pakistan, that President Obama has steered clear of during nearly eight years in office.

Mr. Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders.

He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.

Mr. Trump’s unfiltered exchanges have drawn international attention since the election, most notably when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan with only one other American in the room, his daughter Ivanka Trump — dispensing with the usual practice of using State Department-approved talking points.

On Thursday, the White House weighed in with an offer of professional help. The press secretary, Josh Earnest, urged the president-elect to make use of the State Department’s policy makers and diplomats in planning and conducting his encounters with foreign leaders.

“President Obama benefited enormously from the advice and expertise that’s been shared by those who serve at the State Department,” Mr. Earnest said. “I’m confident that as President-elect Trump takes office, those same State Department employees will stand ready to offer him advice as he conducts the business of the United States overseas.”

“Hopefully he’ll take it,” he added.

But this is hardly the only interpretation.

He is clearly shaping his own style and seeking to break what he sees as the log jam of global policies, and then to allow him to have additional room for maneuver to reshape global policy.

For example, in the case of Kazakhstan, we have argued for some time that the current Administration has ignored Central Asia and has not focused on how enhanced relations in the region can be very helpful to shaping a new policy towards dealing with Putin and Afghanistan.

And we argued as well, that Kazakhstan’ key role in shaping a real nuclear non-proliferation policy needed to be not only fully recognized but leveraged, a fact that Trump clearly highlighted in his call.

But no issue is more important than a new policy towards China and reversing its use of trade as a key driver in the de-industrialization of the United States.

Trump has frequently and clearly linked trade, industrial decline, China and the need for a new approach and policy.

The Chinese government apparently feels free to expand its influence in the region militarily, most notably in the South China Sea without real fear of the United States shaping a proactive response.

Why should they when this was the policy under Clinton at the State Department.

Light was shed on that policy by Secretary Clinton’s emails.

“The Japanese government has been very clear with regard to their approach and the US has been quite PUBLICALLY supportive of their evolving strategy.

Allowing China at the table to veto allied actions in the legitimate defense of their interest’s undercuts deterrence, not strengthen it.

Thanks to the revelations rolling out from Secretary Clinton’s private email survey we are becoming privy to the Administration’s strategy of doing just that!

An architect of such an approach apparently was Clinton’s key aide on Asia, Kurt Campbell.

A recent article published in The Japan Times provides insight into the let China at the table to veto an allied approach strategy.

The United States urged Japan to consult with China before its provocative Senkaku Islands purchase in 2012, a declassified email forwarded to then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has revealed. 

In the email, dated Sept. 3, 2012 — roughly a week before the Japanese government bought three islets in the chain from their private Japanese owner — then-U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said he had urged Japan via Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s vice foreign minister at the time, to “consult and advise Beijing on their plans.” 

Campbell said he had requested Japan’s prior consultation with China when he met with Sasae on Aug. 7, 2012, in Tokyo. At that time, the Japanese government had “just concluded a round of deliberations and apparently their PRC (People’s Republic of China) counterparts were irate,” he said in the email. 

“Sasae however believes that China actually understands the necessity of these actions and will accept them. (I’m not so sure.),” Campbell said in the message sent to senior State Department officials. 

The Japanese government, which administers the Senkakus, purchased three of the five main islets on Sept. 11, 2012, effectively nationalizing the uninhabited chain, which lies in the East China Sea. The action stoked widespread anger in China and sparked a wave of anti-Japanese protests across the nation. 

The email, entitled “Sasae call,” was written shortly after the vice foreign minister conveyed to Washington over the phone that the central government had intended to nationalize the Senkakus. 

It was declassified Friday by the State Department in connection with Clinton’s risky use of a private email server during her recent stint as America’s top diplomat. Republicans are focusing on the unfolding security issue to criticize Clinton’s presidential bid. 

In the message, Campbell also said that although the government and the owner of the islands had agreed on a price, then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a nationalist who kicked off the whole issue by raising funds for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s bid for the uninhabited islands, was “unlikely to consent” to the central government’s interference.

Enter Trump who is not “learning” from the China experts on how he should accept rising Chinese hegemony.

As Ed Timperlake put it with regard to the call from Trump to the President of Taiwan:

“There is the possibility that history may record with Donald Trump taking a phone call from President of Taiwan that just taking the  call may resonate with the same moral imperative of  “tear down this wall”

Before the bought and paid for China apologists and Panda  huggers unleash their expected barrage of criticism and retreating to their fainting couch while  also trying to petrify America.

Some perspective on President-Elect Trump’s new way to reach out and communicate directly is very evident.”

Donald J. Trump 


The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!

7:44 PM – 2 Dec 2016

And then

Donald J. Trump

Verified account


Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.

We have argued that Taiwan is a key player in shaping any effective US and allied defense in depth strategy and it is difficult to see how following the advice of the current cast of China experts would yield that result.

It is not about Trump “learning” but about Trump disrupting the inherited legacy to shape a new one.

It is about a pivot to the Pacific that includes a significant rewrite of policy towards the Chinese regime in Beijing, one which will includes soft and hard power and strategic redesign.

As we wrote in our book on Pacific strategy published three years ago, Taiwan is considered by Beijing from the perspective of holding together their control over the centrifugal forces in their empire; and we can consider as clearly part of a strategy to do the opposite.

The conflict with Taiwan is subsumed in Chinese thinking as part of the core territorial-integrity challenges.

The Island of Formosa was part of China since its conquest in the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century. It was ceded to Japan in 1895 and returned to China after the war.

In the ensuing Chinese civil war, the forces of Chiang Kai-shek were pushed off the Chinese mainland and relocated to Formosa. Here the Republic of China was established. Over time, the Republic of China has evolved into a vibrant democracy, and it is the quality of Taiwan as a modern democracy that is a major challenge to the authoritarian Chinese leadership on the mainland.

And Taiwan certainly demonstrates that Chinese civilization is compatible with democracy and answers at least some of the questions that the well-known expert on China, Joseph Leveson, posed in his classic Confucian China and Its Modern Fate.

A major thrust of military development in the PRC has been to shape forces and capabilities that would allow them to seize Taiwan if the opportunity presented itself and seemed desirable.

But the proximate cause of Taiwan inclusion is now simply a stimulus to shaping greater power projection capabilities in the region that could allow the PRC to incorporate Taiwan into a greater zone of security inclusive of the Korean and Japanese challenges to China itself.

Laird, Robbin; Timperlake, Edward; Weitz, Richard (2013-10-28). Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st-Century Strategy: A 21st-Century Strategy (Praeger Security International) (pp. 25-26). ABC-CLIO. Kindle Edition.

We have argued consistently over the years that a new Taiwan policy and indeed a new approach to Pacific islands is a key part of any new “constrainment strategy” towards China.

For example, Ed Timperlake highlighted the key role which Army ADA might play in both Taiwan’s defense and the defense in depth which the US and the allies need to deal with the PRC military outreach in the Pacific.

Looking at the geography of the Strategic Quadrangle in the Pacific, it is clear that Taiwan plays a key role.

The Republic of China owns a key dominant piece of Pacific Island real estate and it is imperative that now more than ever the US and the allies must not lose that Island cluster as part of a Pacific defense effort.

And the emphasis clearly is upon DEFENSE effort.

In the 20th Century Taiwan had two key features of significance.

First, it was a template for a Chinese free open dynamic society, which must scare the PRC totalitarian leaders to their core, and this intangible is just as important today as it was years ago.

It is not about the PRC as currently constituted swallowing up Taiwan; it is about the democratic traditions which have developed on Taiwan transforming the Communist state and leading to its collapse.

This is not just about geopolitics but about the future of what kind of China plays what kind of role in the world.

Simply having seminars in Washington with the current class of Chinese Communist leaders will not lead to a better China or a better world.

Second, if one looks only at 20th Century “stove piped” military thinking made up of discreet independent elements, an independent Air Battle, Sea Battle, and Big Army land war, then Taiwan was important.

But true then, and even more significantly now, Taiwan lies at the juncture of effective Pacific DEFENSE.

With US and Allies evolving toward a “no platform fights alone” AIR/SEA cross-domain joint Pacific defense, then it is essential that  Taiwan stay aligned with the democracies.

Thankfully, if PLA wants to fight “feet wet,” the US and Allies can still make them fight alone in the dark and die.

How long we keep this edge is a guess, but US forces do train rigorously and have realistic testing in the field and at sea. US and Allied technology with our better-trained and more combat experienced human elements appears be our significant advantage.

For example, of all the combat forces in the world today, the USAF is still a quantum step ahead on their ability to “turn out the lights.” It is a demonstrated  war tipping capability and not just assertional capabilities.

However, if the PRC makes a military move a well designed and executed Air/Sea/Land Battle US battle plan leveraging presence, scalability and multiple access can make such an attack become the PLA’s equivalent of the US WWII Battle of the Bulge.

The “Fighting Navy” is fully capable of executing a combat engagement strategy –“if it floats it sinks.”

Now, with the ever increasing lethality of anti-ship missiles, especially potential hyper-sonic cruise missiles, if the PLA establishes themselves on Taiwan, and has time to dig in, and modernize to their version of “no platform fights alone” it will position the expanded PRC position in the Pacific.

A PRC dominated Taiwan would be militarily poised to disrupt US and allied operations and significantly disrupt the ability to operate in the strategic quadrangle.

If the PLA (generic for all PRC military forces) is given time to dig in and build a robust redundant ISR network from survivable hardened ground facilities and dug in and hardened 2nd Arty missiles batteries, it would be a significant new combat challenge.

The PLA combing survivable ISR 100 plus miles off the China coast linked with sea based platforms, PLAAF attack planes, and their satellites (if they are allowed to survive)  can be very deadly at sea for USN.

With the PLA propensity for digging, they will literally dig in, and shape combat capabilities at the heart of the strategic quadrangle.

Taiwan’s geographic position negates the entire concept of the Strategic Quadrangle, ultimately this could be a combat show stopper.

It is no wonder that the self-declared ADIZ was yet another round of the PRC trying to assert its reach and affecting Taiwan.

Losing Taiwan, especially as PLA weapons modernize would be a challenge to any Pacific Air/Sea campaign battle plan.

One mitigating factor is culturally all  indicators are that the PLA  is still a “hub-spoke” top down military,” which is so 20th Century. Such con-ops can be deadly and get better but still beatable with US Allied Air/Sea evolving technology and con-ops.

The challenge is simply the PLA military concept of “mass” (a lot of combat capability) and survivability if protected correctly.

The US Army could play a key role in providing the kind of allied capabilities which would bolster Taiwan’s ability to DEFEND itself.

How can the US Army play a core role in Taiwan defense?

The first is their making a huge contribution by proliferating their world class Air Defense Capability.

Any country that requests US Big Army support with Air Defense Artillery should be encouraged and engaged….

Proliferating ADA throughout the Pacific Rim and rotating appropriate ground combat units on and off Taiwan is tactically and strategically relevant.

There is no reach here with regard to the strategic relevance of the US Army.

It is imperative, as expressed in the Army’s own FM-1 thinking, to engage with the one country in which they can actually make a difference other than ADA. Rotating units of Big Army on and off Taiwan is their ultimate test case for Pacific Pathways relevance.

A US Army Division (or less to start) rotating in and out of the ROC would be a huge signal to PLA and make a difference  in the event of war.

More” Big Army” is not needed in Japan, Korea, Philippines, Singapore et al.–ADA Army is.

Advocating for Big Army to focus on defending Taiwan should be the core element of their Pacific Pathway.

Rotating significant Big Army Units on and off Taiwan legally falls under two major provisions of The Taiwan Relations Act.

The US Army is not an offensive fighting force in the Pacific, unless they advocate fighting a land war in China, which will not and should not ever happen.  It is clearly a DEFENSIVE force.

Stationed on Taiwan the Army does not have the ability to maneuver to engage in combat off the Island.  Rotating US Army units is purely a defensive signal and falls inside provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

The TRA clearly permits such actions:

“In furtherance of the policy set forth in section 3301 of this title, the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Defense Articles are weapon systems which US provides and also are allowed are “services.”

Taking into account the recent courageous fighting skills honed by the  US Army from over a decade of combat it would be  important to share their insights and provide large unit combined arms training “services” for the ROC Army.

One simple example is the ROC just purchased Apache Helicopters and Army combat experienced pilots could provide realistic training services.

From an American strategic viewpoint, and a signal to all our Pacific Allies, rotating Army units meet the minimum standards of prudent strategic planning as expressed in this provision:

“To maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

History has shown that the PRC loves to tunnel so why not reverse that skill and have the US Army “dig” in on Taiwan.

Like the Army in Germany during the Cold War such a move is a signal of US and Allied resolve. Unlike the cold war victorious US Army in Germany it would be seen as a 100% defensive move.

If not the US Army who will provide allied defense of Taiwan?

If not now when?

President Trump has started the process of setting in motion a new policy.

How about the State Department thinking about shaping a new approach to defending US interests, rather than accommodating US decline?

And apparently it has not dawned on the MSM or the strategic analysts inside the Beltway that the President-elect does not have to give Ambassadorships either to career “professionals” or to high paying donors.

He could actually apparently experts and knowledgeable persons to posts globally who will support the new template?

And shock of shock, there are plenty of good people available!

Instead of Trump learning from the specialists on how to accelerate US decline, a new learning process is being set in motion to shape an American policy for playing a great power role in the decade ahead.

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