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A nation must think before it acts.
On December 2, President-elect Donald Trump spoke with Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, shattering nearly 40 years of diplomatic protocol. It has been characterized as everything from brilliant to petty and everything else in between. Since defeating Hillary Clinton in November, Trump has received many courtesy calls from foreign leaders, such as Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and Prime Minister of Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. All of these calls normally occur so that these leaders can offer their congratulations and to establish a relationship with the incoming leader. In the case of the Tsai call, this norm does not apply because the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In 1979, the U.S. switched from formally recognizing the Republic of China (ROC) as the “real” China to recognizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since the Carter administration, no U.S. president has had direct contact with the leader of Taiwan.
Donald Trump changed all of that, and there have been a variety of reactions within the U.S., Taiwan, and China. One of the first controversies to erupt from this conversation was over whether Trump or Tsai initiated the call. Then, the fact that the call occurred along with Trump breaking tradition took a more central role in the reporting followed by China’s reaction. As expected, President-elect Trump responded to the news coverage and criticisms over Twitter. The terminology that Trump used in one of those tweets when characterizing the phone call is just as important as the call itself:
The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
Since the U.S. does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state, the Executive does not refer to the “President of Taiwan” as such—instead using less controversial phrases like “leader” or “party chairperson.” Such language demonstrates that Trump can and will break with past protocols and norms and that he is not a servant to history. If Trump does not understand the point of a certain practice and views it as a waste, then he will not obey it and shift course. In the case of U.S. policy on Taiwan, he saw an inherent hypocrisy as evident in his second tweet on the matter:
Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
For Trump, the U.S. not recognizing Taiwan and contacting its president does not make sense when the U.S. government sells “military equipment” to Taiwan. He sees an inherent hypocrisy in these matters and decided to break with a tradition that he didn’t agree with.
This phone call—whether Trump initiated it or Tsai (which she did)—did not come out of nowhere. Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be chief of staff, holds pro-Taiwan views along with advisors Peter Navarro and Alexander Gray as well as John Bolton, who wrote about improving relations with Taiwan earlier in 2016. Another Trump adviser, Stephen Yates, also holds similar opinions and is visiting Taiwan this week to meet “with friends.” Moreover, it was a calculated move that was embedded within the Republican Party’s 2016 platform:
We salute the people of Taiwan, with whom we share the values of democracy, human rights, a free market economy, and the rule of law. Our relations will continue to be based upon the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, and we affirm the Six Assurances given to Taiwan in 1982 by President Reagan. We oppose any unilateral steps by either side to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Straits on the principle that all issues regarding the island’s future must be resolved peacefully, through dialogue, and be agreeable to the people of Taiwan. If China were to violate those principles, the United States, in accord with the Taiwan Relations Act, will help Taiwan defend itself. We praise efforts by the new government in Taipei to continue constructive relations across the Taiwan Strait and call on China to reciprocate. As a loyal friend of America, Taiwan has merited our strong support, including free trade agreement status, the timely sale of defensive arms including technology to build diesel submarines, and full participation in the World Health Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, and other multilateral institutions.
Sources within the Trump team say that the call had been planned for months. No matter how one views the president-elect and his policies, he has assembled a team familiar with U.S.-Taiwan relations, and they would not make such an historic move without understanding its consequences. Considering these facts, the greater surprise is that it took so long for the call to take place.
For those who do not know much about U.S.-Taiwan relations, the hullabaloo surrounding this phone call might seem puzzling: a call is just a call, right? Not so.
In 1949, the Kuomintang (KMT) fled from the Chinese Mainland to the island of Taiwan and other outer islands after the Communist Party of China (CCP) conquered almost all of China. The civil war is technically still ongoing as no treaty—or armistice—has ever been signed. After October 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), controlled by the CCP, ruled “China,” while the Republic of China (ROC), controlled by the KMT, ruled “Taiwan.” Very little has changed—except for the fact that Taiwan is now a thriving democracy with multiple parties and peaceful transfers of power.
The U.S. recognized the ROC as the “real China” from 1949 to 1979 when President Jimmy Carter switched recognitions to the PRC. However, the ROC’s troubles did not start there: in 1971, the ROC government was expelled from the UN in favor of the PRC.
Recognizing that the representatives of the Government of the People’s Republic of China are the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations and that the People’s Republic of China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
Decides to restore all its rights to the People’s Republic of China and to recognize the representatives of its Government as the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations, and to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon visited the PRC and signed the famous Shanghai Communique, which has shaped U.S. policy towards China ever since. It established the “One China” precedent in which the United States holds that “the United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” However, the statement did not endorse a pro-PRC or pro-ROC definition of “China” at the time.
Then, in 1979, Carter completed the transition by establishing formal relations with the PRC over the ROC, but the U.S. government still has not explicitly expressed a position on the sovereignty of Taiwan. Yet, since Carter’s decision, no U.S. president has contacted the president of Taiwan because the two do not hold formal diplomatic relations. That same year, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which stipulates that U.S. can still sell to Taiwan equipment necessary for its defense and that relations between the U.S. and Taiwan would be conducted through the American Institute in Taiwan instead of a formal diplomatic mission or embassy. It also maintained that all existing laws regarding Taiwan will remain in effect and affords Taiwan other rights like the right to sue in U.S. courts. In addition, in 1982, the KMT proposed Six Assurances to the U.S. to help guide relations between them, which President Ronald Reagan accepted and Congress accepted and continues to:
The TRA and the Six Assurance (above) regulate U.S.-Taiwan relations. One can begin to see why an innocuous thing like a phone call has dominated the news cycle. It is unprecedented.
In the immediate aftermath of the phone, on December 3, Geng Shuang, the official spokesman for the PRC’s Foreign Ministry, made the following statement:
We have noted the report and lodged solemn representations with the party concerned in the US. It must be pointed out that there is but one China in the World, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. The government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing China. That is the well-known fact. The one China principle is the political basis of the China-US relationship. We urge the relevant party in the US to honor its commitment to the one China policy and the principles of the three joint communiqués, and properly deal with Taiwan-related issues in a discreet manner, so as to avoid unnecessary disruptions to the overall China-US relationship.
The statement follows the PRC’s talking points about Taiwan and U.S. relations with the PRC and Taiwan. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi chimed in with a similar message: “It is a little trick played by Taiwan which would not change the one-China consensus in international community. I don’t think it will change the one-China policy of the US government either. The one-China principle is a cornerstone for healthy development of China-US relations, and China does not want this political foundation to be interfered with or damaged.” These reactions are much more muted than how press in the U.S. has covered the story. Characterizing the conversation as a “little trick played by Taiwan” undermines both the importance of the call as well as Taiwan’s stance—implying that it is only capable of tricking the U.S. and having little power to do much else. These calm and collected statements are mainly due to the fact that Beijing has no choice but to deal with a Trump administration for the next four years. No matter what Trump writes on Twitter about China—
Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2016
their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 4, 2016
The Chinese understand fact that Trump will be president in January 2017 and will determine how the United States deals with their country.
The Obama administration has attempted to assure Taiwan that U.S. policy in regards to “One China” has not changed: “The Chinese government in Beijing placed an enormous priority on this situation, and it’s a sensitive matter. Some of the progress that we have made in our relationship with China could be undermined by this issue flaring up.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest also noted that the administration had spoken to Beijing twice to “reiterate and clarify the continued commitment of the United States to our longstanding China policy.” Obama’s policies will only be in effect for another month or so until Trump takes office and creates his own policies in regards to Taiwan and China. After January 20, 2017, Trump could easily reverse these policies; Obama’s reassurances hold little weight this late into his presidency.
This phone call between Trump and Tsai points to sign of things to come in the incoming Trump administration—for better or worse.
Throughout his campaign, Trump promised that he would be tough on China. He said that he would label China a currency manipulator, among other things. The Taiwan issue never came up on the campaign trail for Trump. This call is Trump’s first public pronouncement on Taiwan; how does fit it into the larger Asia-Pacific narrative for Trump?
During the call with Tsai—which lasted for about 10 minutes—Trump discussed with her the future of Taiwan relations and the possibility of strengthening them. China has consistently tried to box Taiwan out of the international community hoping that it would force the island nation to make concessions. As recently as September – October 2016, at China’s urging, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) did not accept Taiwan’s request to participate in its 39th Assembly. A more overtly pro-Taiwan U.S. administration could help to push back against Chinese pressure to isolate Taiwan in the future.
At the same time, while Beijing’s response has been limited to words for now, subtle escalation is likely to occur in the immediate future. On September 25, October 26, and November 25, Chinese military planes flew around Taiwan, but did not enter “Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.” These missions could occur more frequently, and the planes might choose a more daring path next time, perhaps even breaching the air defense zone to make a statement. Beijing could also further reduce the number of tourist visas for PRC citizens to travel to Taiwan and ratchet up anti-Taiwan messaging. Most responses and reprisals will certainly be aimed at Taiwan, not the U.S. Being “tough” on China works well for Trump with his base, but it could have long-lasting ramifications for Taiwan and its citizens. How far is Trump truly willing to go to back up his words once he takes office? How much support will he provide Taiwan in the event that China escalates its actions?
Even if increased U.S. support or relations does not materialize in the long run, this conversation serves to put Beijing on notice. It is a public signal that Trump will not allow China to continue to bully its neighbors and that his administration will be a constant check on the PRC. One sure-fire way to get the attention of President Xi Jinping is to give more attention to Taiwan. If Trump is willing to accept a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan, what else will he be willing to do once he takes office and controls U.S. policy? The next four years will certainly be characterized by unexpected policy pronouncements and the repudiation of once holy diplomatic traditions.