US-China relations How to read Donald Trump’s call with Taiwan’s president

December 4, 2016

THERE are lots of excellent reasons why America should deepen its relations with Taiwan, the raucous, friendly and dynamic island of 25m people that shows that democracy and Chinese culture can co-exist, despite what apologists for one-party rule like to claim. There is one heartbreaking and serious reason why any process of deepening relations cannot include America moving to recognise Taiwan as an independent sovereign state—at least as long as mainland China is governed by its current authoritarian and fiercely nationalist (though nominally Communist) rulers.

 

The problem is China and its absolute insistence that Taiwan is no more than a renegade province, which must one day be reunited with the mainland, if necessary by force. In a different world, in which might never makes right, Taiwan’s independence would be no more than a question of justice and common sense: after all, the island has never been controlled by the Communist government in Beijing, and its population grows more attached to a distinctive Taiwanese identity with each new generation. But that is not this world. Worse, Communist officials and generals are not alone in their opposition to Taiwanese independence. Thanks in part to decades of nationalist education and indeed indoctrination, starting in kindergarten, the Chinese public reacts ferociously to any suggestion that foreign powers are menacing what history books and state media call the “territorial integrity” of their country—a suggestion that is invariably compared to the humiliating end of imperial Chinese rule when outside powers grabbed chunks of China, such as Hong Kong or Macau, for themselves. Put another way, Communist leaders are both expressing their own views and bowing to public opinion when they bully and nag foreign partners into isolating Taiwan in endless humiliating ways, stage frequent military exercises simulating a maritime invasion or build bristling arrays of missiles on their side of the Taiwan Strait.

 

That background makes it startling, and to many Asia-hands confounding, that President-elect Donald Trump broke with 37 years of diplomatic practice on Friday and accepted a congratulatory phone call from the elected Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, then—to defend his actions—tweeted that the “president of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the presidency”. Not even Ronald Reagan, an instinctive friend of Taiwan, spoke in person to that island’s leaders once he won a presidential election. Since America broke diplomatic relations with the authorities on the island of Taiwan in 1979, every president has accepted the diplomatic fiction that there is but “One China”, and that the respective governments on the mainland and in Taiwan are rival claimants to the glory of ruling over that unified nation. Even Tsai Ing-wen does not use the formal title of “President of Taiwan”, but calls herself the President of the Republic of China, making her the legal successor of the Nationalist leaders who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong and the Communist-run People’s Republic of China. It may be a face-saving fiction, but it has also been a life-saving one. The likeliest cause of a war between China and America has always been a crisis involving Taiwan. In 1995 and 1996 mainland rulers carried out threatening missile tests after America granted a visa to Taiwan’s then-president so he could speak at Cornell University, obliging Bill Clinton to send warships to the region in a show of force.

 

Allies of Mr Trump have praised him for standing up to a bullying China and—by triggering a mini-crisis even before his inauguration in January—expanding his room for manoeuvre with Beijing once he does take office, and begins haggling over such questions as trade and Chinese help over North Korea’s nuclear programme. While reporting from a defence and security forum at the Reagan Library in California on Saturday, Lexington met a senior Republican foreign-policy hawk from the George W. Bush era who said that though his diplomatic colleagues were getting “bent out of shape” about the Taiwan phone call, he had no problem with the president-elect keeping an adversary like China “on its toes”. Besides, the hawk noted correctly, China’s official reaction to date had been distinctly muted, with the foreign minister, Wang Yi, blaming Taiwanese leaders for the phone call, calling it a “petty gambit”.

 

On December 3rd the China Daily, an English-language newspaper published by the State Council and used to send messages to the outside world, offered a further, patronising swipe at Mr Trump, with an editorial headlined: “No Need to Over-Interpret Tsai-Trump Phone Call” and opining that, “For Trump, it exposed nothing but his and his transition team's inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs.”

 

So are Trump-backers correct in calling this outreach to Ms Tsai a deft move? I have visited Taiwan many times and am deeply fond of the place, but I suspect that Mr Trump and his team are almost certainly setting Taiwan up for a fall. That is because there is no chance that, if forced to choose between peaceful relations with China and friendship with Taiwan, any American president will choose Taiwan. And make no mistake, China would force President Trump to choose. At which point he would drop Taiwan like a hot steamed bun.

 

Does the president-elect understand this? It is impossible to know. His tweets since the phone call have a rather peevish tone, as if complaining that China’s ferocity on the subject of Taiwan is unreasonable. In one, he wrote: “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” He is right that China is not being reasonable. But sometimes in foreign policy words reflect real-world stand-offs and commitments. Just ask American officials about the precise language that they use to describe Jerusalem’s status, or the difference between the Palestinian Authority and a state.

 

Some have concluded that Mr Trump was nudged into the phone call by a small group of pro-Taiwan advisers. The press in Taiwan named one of those advisers as Stephen Yates, a former deputy national security adviser to the-then vice-president, Dick Cheney. Mr Yates has denied setting up the phone call, but defended the outreach in an online commentary for Fox News. In that commentary, Mr Yates makes some sweeping claims. That Ms Tsai is president of Taiwan, he wrote, is “a reality that is obvious to average Americans, Taiwanese and Chinese, but something diplomats like to pretend isn’t so.” Though it is popular to attack foreign-policy suits, this is nonsense. The average American does not have firm views on Taiwan’s legal status. The average Taiwanese and Chinese citizen does have views on that question—but knows that a declaration of formal independence could trigger a war.

 

“The fact that a simple courtesy call caused so much trepidation and genuflections to past protocol just shows how absurd U.S.-China policy has become,” wrote Mr Yates. “If a little courtesy to a democratic friend and a little truth about Taiwan could really threaten peace in the Pacific, as the experts contend, then we need to reevaluate our defense and come up with something better.”

 

That sounds alarmingly like someone contemplating how America might back up a change in its China policy with military force. Is this what Mr Trump has in mind? Almost certainly not. Is it true that Mr Trump has been taking advice from Mr Yates and some other advocates of confrontation with China (John Bolton, the former ambassador to the UN, has also been named in press reports). Nobody knows, because his transition is a black box. Unlike all modern presidents-elect he has largely shunned the structures of government. He has made phone calls to foreign leaders from his office in Manhattan and some cases via mobile telephone, relying on foreign government interpreters and note-takers, rather than on the well-oiled machinery of the State Department. It is hard to know who his foreign policy advisers are—many are named as offering him counsel, but in interviews some of those sages admit that they have barely met him.

 

If all this seems a lot of fuss over a phone call, it is. But it is also a fuss about a man who is about to govern the most powerful country on earth, who makes impulsive moves and seems not to understand their full significance.

 

 

 

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