Chinese President Xi Jinping has made reunification with Taiwan a priority. And what US President Donald Trump would say or do if Xi decided to assert the People's Republic's sovereignty by force is anyone’s guess.
Even some of Donald Trump's Republican supporters in the Senate did not doubt that the US president extorted a vulnerable ally to help him get re-elected in November by smearing a political rival. To be sure, they avoided using the word extortion. But, as Lamar Alexander, a senator from Tennessee, put it in a carefully worded statement: "It was inappropriate for the President to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation."
And yet, the Senate's Republican majority chose to acquit Trump. The message, warned Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic Representative from New York, was that national security is for sale.
Trump's acquittal will further dent people's remaining confidence in how US foreign policy is conducted, but it won't change many minds about the president himself. His reputation among autocrats and right-wing populists remains high. Among liberals, let alone "progressives," his name remains mud.
But not everywhere. I just returned from Hong Kong and Taiwan, perhaps the last places on Earth where the sight of the US flag at pro-democracy demonstrations still raises a mighty cheer. The protesters' common enemy is the dictatorship in the People's Republic of China, and its local supporters, mostly conservatives with strong business interests, the kind of people who might vote for Trump in the US.
Enthusiasm for the US goes further than cheering the Stars and Stripes. I heard liberal democrats in both places express their support for Trump. The reason is obvious. As an avowed (sometimes) enemy of their enemy, Trump is their friend, or so they believe. The policies of Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, a champion of gay and minority rights, have almost nothing in common with those of Trump's Republican Party. Yet Trump broke protocol by phoning her in 2016 – the first direct contact between a Taiwanese and a US president since 1979. Delighted by this recognition, Tsai congratulated Trump on his victory.
Taiwan, or the Republic of China, as it is still officially known, was long the darling of anti-communist hardliners in the Republican Party. But, as part of the 1972 deal to open diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), President Richard Nixon conceded that Taiwan was a part of China. In 1979, when the US embassy in Taipei moved to Beijing, democracy was beginning to be established in Taiwan. Now it is a fully democratic republic. "Reunification" with China would mean its death.
When people in Hong Kong last year protested against China's efforts to curtail freedom of speech, impose "patriotic education" in Hong Kong's schools, and limit direct suffrage, Trump failed to support them. Instead, he praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for having "acted responsibly, very responsibly."
But when legislation was passed in the US promising sanctions against Hong Kong or Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses, Trump became a hero to the student protesters. Banners were waved thanking him and asking him to "liberate Hong Kong."
In Taiwan, Hong Kong serves as a warning. Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party won January's presidential and legislative elections in a landslide, largely because of China's intimidating tactics in Hong Kong, and Xi's declaration that Taiwan, too, should soon be subject to the "one country, two systems" formula that clearly isn't preserving freedoms in Hong Kong. The DPP slogan didn't mince words: "Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan."
Most people in Hong Kong and Taiwan are sophisticated. They are well aware of Trump's character flaws. But with your back against the wall – Hong Kong as a kind of PRC colony, and Taiwan being threatened with military force – you can't be too picky when it comes to your allies. Citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan realize that without international backing, their freedoms and democracy are probably doomed.
But to be dependent on the support of someone as unreliable and impetuous as Trump – who changes his mind, often without telling even his closest advisers, simply because he feels like it, or is annoyed by something he saw on TV – is an unenviable position. Syria's Kurds – among the most loyal of US allies – can attest to that.
Even on a matter as important as China, Trump blows hot or cold. His policies depend less on US security than on how much money can be extracted from whom, and how it will look on Fox News. He brags about unleashing a trade war with China one day, and declares his deep admiration for Xi the next. Trump's policy toward North Korea, if one can call it that, is similarly incoherent: bellicose rhetoric followed by declarations of camaraderie with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
For US allies, the risks of taking Trump's words of support at face value are obvious. But what if US adversaries decide to call Trump's bluff?
If China's government were certain that the US would intervene to prevent it from taking over Taiwan by force (as it has promised to do if "reunification" doesn't happen peacefully), no sane Chinese leader would be likely to risk a war with America. But with Trump, China's leaders cannot be sure.
Protecting Taiwan's democracy is not even the main purpose of US involvement in East Asia. The Taiwan Strait must be kept open to safeguard the interests of other US allies in the region, primarily Japan. But such concerns may not cut much ice with Trump, and the Chinese know that. They don't need to be convinced that US national security is for sale. As cynical communists who opened their country to big business, they already believe that foreign capitalists care only about hard cash. They might well reasonably assume that Trump, offered some attractive financial deal, will let them do whatever they want.
Xi has made reunification with Taiwan a priority. What Trump would say or do if he opts for a radical solution is anyone's guess. And that's the problem. The Chinese might think any objection of his is just blather. Cornered, Trump would then have to prove his manliness. And before we know it, East Asia, and possibly much more, would be in flames. This may not be likely, but given Trump's blustering, and China's mixture of contempt and paranoia, such a scenario is all too easy to imagine.
Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, and, most recently, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.