The global news network blew up with bewildered reactions after US President Donald Trump abruptly fired national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday, ending a turbulent tenure and also sending Washington reeling with a particularly messy staff breakup. Taipei is also on edge, as many Taiwanese thought of Bolton as a rational and cautious person as the direction of policy under an erratic president comes increasingly under question.
A big-picture strategic thinker with decades of foreign-policy experience who frequently challenged conventional wisdom, Bolton was a powerful force for American exceptionalism and leadership as national security adviser. He was one of the administration’s most reliably hawkish voices, urging a tough line against Beijing. China is extremely dissatisfied and resolutely opposed to Bolton’s priorities and policies. His ouster caused shockwaves through the Indo-Pacific region, including Taiwan.
Since joining the Trump administration, Bolton has called for closer US military ties with Taiwan to help counter Beijing, including more arms sales and stationing military personnel and assets on the island. He also caused anger in Beijing by meeting with Taiwan’s national-security chief David Lee in May. It was the first meeting between the top security advisers of the two governments since 1979, when Washington severed formal ties with Taipei. The government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen viewed this rare meeting as a sign of support from the Trump administration.
Trump needs a trade deal with China as quickly as possible to avert a sharp slowdown of the US economy, as recent polls have made clear. There won’t be any deal unless the US finds some way to walk back its efforts to keep China’s top telecommunications firm Huawei out of world markets. The summary dismissal of Bolton increases the prospects of a deal, although the immediate motivation for his departure most likely lies elsewhere.
Bolton is quite the China hawk. In January 2018, three months before he took office, he argued in The Wall Street Journal that the US should station troops in Taiwan. Many experts believe his departure might clear the way for a trade-and-technology deal between the US and China. The news of Bolton being fired likely drew applause in Beijing.
Taiwan has been a long-term US ally, and in the shaping of the new situation on the trade war between the United States and China in the future, Taiwan will also play an important intermediary and harmonizing role. Bolton’s departure thus comes at a time when nervousness among US allies is palpable. Under Bolton, the US and China have had some tense moments over the South China Sea, and arms sales to Taiwan irked Beijing, but the conflict did not escalate and mutual exchanges were continuing. It was a carefully maintained balance, a managed situation.
US leadership in the Indo-Pacific region was also bolstered under Bolton, and his support for Taiwan helped lead to the best US-Taiwan relationship in 40 years. And he was at the forefront of the Trump administration pushing back on Chinese designs in the Indo-Pacific in ways that strengthened America’s presence and credibility.
A rigid ideologue, Bolton rightly placed strengthening the Indo-Pacific alliance at the very heart of strategic thinking in the White House and was a powerful adversary for President Xi Jinping’s China. He consistently stood up to Beijing’s expansionism and made it clear at every opportunity that the United States would stand with and defend its allies in the region.
From Taiwan’s perspective, Bolton is a rational and cautious person and it’s sad to see the dismissal of an anti-China, Taiwan-friendly policy hawk. Taipei has viewed him as an important check on an impetuous president’s doctrine. Trump’s abrupt firing of Bolton did not just startle Taipei, many Taiwanese worry about who will replace him. If his replacement is a stooge, the result could actually be worse.