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Trump's first month: Implications for Taiwan

The ECCT hosted a special lunch featuring guest speaker Ross Feingold, Senior Adviser at DC International Advisory. The speaker presented his analysis of US President Donald Trump's first month in office and the implications for Taiwan.

Trump is the most unconventional candidate elected as president of the US in living memory. He campaigned as an anti-establishment candidate and his victory in the Republican Party primaries as well as his eventual victory in the election can be partly attributed to the level of popular discontent with the political establishment.

Feingold presented an electoral map showing which counties were won by Trump and which were won by his rival, Hillary Clinton. Judging by the overwhelming swathes of red (indicating which counties were won by Trump) compared to the patches of blue (won by Clinton) that were far fewer in number and dotted mostly along the east and west coasts, there is some credence to Trump's claim that he has broad support across most of the country despite, losing the popular vote to Clinton by around three million votes. Without the huge majorities Clinton won in the populous states of California and New York, her level of popular support would not have been very strong.

During his election campaign, Trump vowed to build a wall on the Mexican border, repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a signature programme of his predecessor, Barack Obama, pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and tear up the existing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Since taking office Trump has moved to make good on several of his campaign promises, which, if viewed through the eyes of his supporters, lends credence to his claim that he is just doing what he said he would do. This could be why Trump's favourability ratings have actually risen since winning the election, as well as since taking office. The level of favourability has risen to 44.9% while unfavourable ratings have dropped from well above 50% to around 49.8%. Nevertheless, public opinion has remained deeply polarised with only 43.8% approving of his job performance so far compared to 51% who disapprove.

It is noteworthy that Trump's personnel picks satisfy key constituencies who voted for him. The Republican Party broadly supports his nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. The business community generally supports his picks for commerce and treasury secretaries. Conservatives support his choices for education and housing while certain labour groups support his picks for trade and the EPA.

There is considerable opposition to global trade deals and support for Trump's rhetorical support regarding manufacturing and mining jobs, which were seen as being threatened by the former administration. Feingold noted that many left-of-centre voters are also staunchly opposed to multilateral trade deals that have hurt local businesses. Meanwhile, anti-establishment voters are happy with his choice of Steve Bannon as chief strategist. According to Feingold, his choice (albeit second choice) of Lieutenant-General McMaster as National Security Advisor should serve to balance the influential secretary of state (Rex Tillerson), secretary of defence and White House advisers Bannon, Kushner and Priebus.

Turning to the president's actions in his first few weeks in office, according a recent opinion poll cited by Feingold and despite considerable international condemnation, President Trump's immigration ban (since overturned by US courts) was approved by 55% of the US public and opposed by only 38%.

According to Feingold, Trump also has majority support for domestic policies including immigration policy for both blue and white collar immigrants, increased spending on transportation and infrastructure and defence, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, corporate and individual tax reform and regulatory reform in the areas of energy and finance.

According to Feingold, while Republicans have previously expressed worry about budget deficits and generally been opposed to too much spending, there is now bipartisan support in congress to increase spending on transportation and infrastructure. There is also support among Republicans to increase spending on defence. We should also expect quick action on the Affordable Care Act (Republicans are apparently working on a replacement bill). Key constituencies such as oil and mining companies and labour groups in those industries are also in favour of overturning environmental regulations that are seen as stifling their industries. Trump has already taken action in this regard by signing an executive order to approve oil pipelines that had been blocked by the Obama administration.

In terms of foreign policy, Trump and his team have delivered Frank messages regarding Europe, Japan and South Korea. While Vice President Mike Pence, on behalf of the president, reiterated continuing US support for the NATO alliance in recent meetings, he also delivered the message that European countries need to take responsibility and "pay their fair share" by increasing spending on defence to around 2% of GDP.

On China, Trump was particularly critical throughout the campaign. According to Feingold, it is clear that his priority will be addressing the US's trade imbalance with China while we should also expect a more robust US presence in the South China Sea in response to China's moves in the region.

Commenting on Trump's telephone call with President Tsai Ying-wen, Feingold said it is not clear if this will prove to be the high point for US-Taiwan relations in recent years and that the result could be either positive or negative for Taiwan. It remains to be seen. He added that Trump's phone call to Chinese president Xi is a reminder that the "One China principle" versus the "One China policy" confuses many stakeholders. During the call to Xi Trump reiterated that the status quo, that is the US's One China policy would be maintained. This policy gives quite a bit of flexibility in how the US deals with Taiwan. It would not be a surprise, for example, if there were more engagement and higher level exchanges between US and Taiwan officials in future.

Trump and his administration's reticence, bordering on outright disdain, for multilateral institutions and agreements is very clear. This has already been demonstrated in his decision to withdraw from the TPP. The implication is that the administration does give much credence to threats about disruptions to the established global order that withdrawing from such deals would cause and that the administration prefers bilateral and targeted deals.

Feingold's advice to the Taiwan government is that they should make an effort to understand the Trump administration's personnel and congress while Taiwan businesses should monitor developments to make sure they understand issues such as the proposed border adjustment tax, tariffs and currency sanctions. For example, Taiwan has already been flagged as having an opaque currency.

The administration's position on the issue of climate change in not yet clear. However, actions so far, such as Trump's choice of EPA secretary, who has a record of abolishing environmental protection regulations, is greatly disturbing for many in the international community, especially Europe. Actions to date are a clear reversal of policies of the Obama administration, which sought to align (loosely) US environmental policies with those of Europe.