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September 26, 2017

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U.S. primary elections and their policy implications on Taiwan

The implications for Taiwan's nomination process were discussed in a previous article and the next discusses specific candidates' positions on Taiwan. Now, "What are the general policy implications of the three candidates most likely to become President?"

First, for American elections foreign policy is "at the water's edge" unless it involves war, the ability to command, or pocketbooks. Foreign policy does not usually matter in U.S. elections, and rarely is a defining or even an important issue in presidential campaigns.

Geography is important, and unlike America, China is very close to Taiwan. Most Taiwanese issues have a direct connection to cross-strait policy including: economic development, jobs, technology, disease, investment, identity, etc. Most American issues have a more tangential relation to international politics.

Like Vietnam, Iraq faded as an issue as the deaths of Americans decreased. A segment of the population remains strongly concerned about the war, but unless Iraq again ignites, it will not be a dominant issue.

The possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait where two superpowers could collide, perhaps the most dangerous place in the world, is not even on the radar screen of presidential politics. While foreign policy elites remain attentive, the election has nothing to tell Taiwan on this security issue. No candidate wants to tie their hands, and no domestic constituency is important enough to illicit candidate statements that go beyond deploring war and supporting the U.S.'s current policy of "strategic ambiguity."

The Clinton campaign's television ads in Texas emphasized a red phone ringing in the White House at 3:00 a.m., and suggested that Hillary was more capable of responding to danger than Barack. Here is foreign policy, in the guise of presidential character and experience, entering the campaign by the side door. However, this has little to do with Taiwan and more with generic issues of leadership and personality.

Second, China is important in the campaign but not for strategic reasons. While in strategic circles China is increasingly perceived as a potential threat, China enters the campaign for personal and pocketbook reasons. Tainted products and job losses are issues that directly impact voters. Lead paint on my kids toys, a factory closing depressing the local economy, my friend's job going overseas, or high gas prices driven in part by Chinese demand, these touch voters. More importantly, these are easy triggers that candidates pull when seeking votes on the campaign trail.

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