President Trump is getting softer on China by the day.
The White House is reportedly reluctant to move forward on an arms deal with Taiwan out of fear that it may irk Beijing — even though the deal was first proposed during the Obama years and would be in line with a long tradition of US arms sales to the island nation.
According to Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, “a lack of administration consensus” is slowing the approval of the $1 billion package — a fairly modest sum for an arms deal. The reason? Some in the White House are concerned that it will rub China the wrong way just as Trump is trying to get Beijing to do more to rein in North Korea. The reclusive nation has conducted half a dozen missile tests in recent months and is widely expected to conduct a new nuclear test in the coming days or weeks.
The delay doesn’t mean that the Trump administration won’t eventually approve the deal, and Rogin notes that Taiwan could even end up getting access to more advanced US weaponry, including the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But for now, the administration’s stalling looks quite plainly like deference to China. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
China opposes US arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers to be a renegade province, not an independent nation. While the US doesn’t have a formal diplomatic relationship with the island, it has for decades sold Taiwan weaponry designed to help the island protect itself from China. In 2015 alone, the US sold close to $2 billion worth of defensive arms to Taiwan. China raised a fuss and threatened sanctions; the US ignored those concerns and went ahead with the deal anyway.
The delay is the latest example of Trump making friendly gestures toward China despite blasting it on the campaign trail (and igniting an early controversy by breaking with decades of US policy by taking a call from Taiwan’s president during the transition).
To take another example, Trump has so far been less aggressive than President Obama when it comes to so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. During the campaign, Trump promised to take a hard line with Beijing over the disputed waters, and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has in the past suggested the two countries would one day go to war over the territory.
But top Pentagon officials in the Trump administration have denied three requests by the Navy to sail within 12 nautical miles of a reef in the South China Sea that both China and the Philippines lay claim to. That’s part of a wider trend: No US ship has gone within that distance of any island in the area since Trump took office.
That’s far from Trump’s only reversal on China. Before taking office, he threatened to ignore the “One China” policy that has limited American interactions with Taiwan and underpinned US-Chinese diplomatic relations for decades. He didn’t. He promised to label China a currency manipulator on his first day of office. He didn’t. He said he would slap 45 percent tariffs on Chines goods to protect American workers from the “rape” of Chinese industry. He didn’t.
The most immediate reason for all of these shifts is North Korea. Trump knows that Beijing has more leverage over an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang than any other country in the world.
To the extent that Trump does seem willing to shake up the status quo on China policy, it’s to be softer on Beijing than has his predecessors have been.