No one doubted that the world changed a month ago when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. The result was close, but the American people decisively chose the undiplomatic businessman to lead the U.S. government and “free world.”
Americans are still trying to figure out what kind of president he will be. So are foreign peoples and governments. Although he has acted with some circumspection in his Cabinet choices so far, his phone call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen suggests either carelessness or recklessness. Neither is a good approach in dealing with an issue of great importance to U.S.-Chinese relations.
America's relationship with China is long and tortured. Washington joined European powers in carving up largely helpless Imperial China in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. The U.S. backed Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government against Japanese invaders and domestic insurgents, but was unable to prevent Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party from taking power in 1949. Washington then supported the nationalist remnant under Chiang after it fled to the island of Taiwan, claiming to be the entire country's legitimate government.
While much of the world recognized the mainland's People's Republic of China, America only talked to the Republic of China on Taiwan. In the midst of the Cold War, however, Richard Nixon made a pilgrimage to Beijing to forge an anti-Soviet understanding. President Jimmy Carter completed the process in 1979, formally shifting diplomatic recognition to the PRC. Beijing also took over China's Security Council seat at the United Nations.
However, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which institutionalized unofficial relations with Taipei. While the U.S. government formally acknowledges that there is only one China and top U.S. officials avoid contact with Taiwanese leaders, both Taiwan and America maintain unofficial diplomats in the other's capital. It might look like a silly game to outsiders, but such artificial yet important processes are what diplomacy is all about.
President-elect Trump ignored this finely crafted compromise in making his call to Tsai. It was as if British Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston dropped a pleasant note to Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis after the latter's inauguration. USA President Abraham Lincoln would not have been pleased.
The PRC is quick to take offense at even more modest slights, such as arms sales to Taipei visits by Taiwanese officials to America. In 2001 President George W. Bush explicitly pledged to defend the island nation, but backtracked under pressure. Presidential contact between the U.S. and Taiwan is a first in nearly four decades.
So far China has responded cautiously, Foreign Minister Wang Yi termed the call a “petty trick on the part of the Taiwan side,” thereby blaming Taipei for the incident. If the Trump operation doesn’t change policy elsewhere, Beijing might decide to drop the matter.
But if there is a larger shift in policy, as advocated by some of Trump’s advisers, bilateral relations could deteriorate. While the PRC might not retaliate directly, it can undercut U.S. interests elsewhere.
Beijing just allowed passage of another round of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, but has almost total discretion in how tightly it enforces the new penalties. The PRC also will have to decide how to respond to candidate Trump’s threat to launch a protectionist offensive against China. Beijing also could ratchet up its aggressive territorial activities in the South China Sea. Incidents like the Trump-Tsai conversation make tough Chinese responses more likely.
Of course, there’s an attractive argument for the U.S. government to elevate Taipei’s status. Taiwan’s future should be decided by its own people, not Beijing. The island has been free of control by the mainland for most of the last century and more. Without question the vast majority of Taiwanese do not want to be part of the authoritarian behemoth next door.
However, foreign policy also must reflect reality. China’s leaders and people view Taiwan rather like Lincoln and the American people viewed the South: an integral part of a nation and worth fighting, and dying, for. Those earlier Americans were willing to accept a death toll of around 750,000 over the issue of secession (not slavery, against which most northerners would not have taken up arms). The PRC similarly is willing to risk war over Taiwan. In contrast, how many Americans would choose to go to war with China to protect Taiwan’s independence?
This doesn’t mean Washington should avoid Beijing’s displeasure at any cost. For instance, arms sales, which the president-elect said he favors, help the island defend itself without committing America to war with a nuclear-armed power over interests not vital for U.S. security. Arming Taiwan is the best of a bad set of policy options. It achieves an important objective: assist Taipei in developing its own force to raise the price of military action by Beijing.
In contrast, the Trump phone call serves no obvious purpose. He has no power to act for another seven weeks. There are no critical issues to be settled by the two countries. And his phone conversations with foreign leaders almost uniformly have been vacuous, even embarrassing—just read the transcript of his chat with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His aides said that he and Tsai talked about “the close economic, political, and security ties” between the two governments, which sounds like the usual boilerplate. For that Trump is adding more turbulence to U.S.-China relations?
Tsai put a more positive spin on the talk for her side, contending that Trump said he “hopes to strengthen two-way interaction and communication and establish closer cooperative relations.” While there’s nothing in theory wrong with doing so, in practice any U.S. steps that appear to suggest something closer to official recognition would encourage Taipei to be tougher, and potentially even reckless, in dealing with the PRC. The last independence-minded president, Chen Shui-bian, felt secure in his nation’s relationship with America and went out of his way to poke at China.
At the same time, Beijing might feel the need to take action to challenge the new U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Of course, one would hope that Beijing would back down from any confrontation. But nationalism runs deep in today’s China, and even younger Chinese, many of whom bridle at internet censorship and other limits on their personal freedom, believe that Taiwan is part of China.
Given the fact that Taiwan means much more to the PRC than America, Beijing officials may feel well positioned to play a game of international chicken. Is the U.S. prepared to lose Los Angeles for Taipei, once asked one Chinese? Washington would likely stay out of any conflict for reasons similar to why Palmerston’s Britain stayed out of America’s Civil War. And if the U.S. isn’t willing to back up its threats with force, it would be best to avoid starting down that road.
Better would be to search for a modus vivendi which could satisfy both sides. How to preserve Taiwanese autonomy while respecting formal Chinese authority? One could imagine the U.S. eschewing plans to defend the island, limiting arms sales, and avoiding official contacts with Taiwan. In return China would promise to not use force against Taiwan, withdraw missiles targeted on the island, and allow Taipei limited participation in international organizations. Taiwan would promise not to pursue formal independence, provide the American military with base access, and join any anti-China international coalition. Taiwan's final status would be put off for peaceful resolution in the future.
Everyone would have reason to be dissatisfied. But everyone also would be far better off than if conflict enveloped the Taiwan Strait. Continued peace should be the primary objective of the incoming Trump administration.
Hopefully the president-elect will soon learn that everything he says as president has impact. It is as easy to create an international crisis through inadvertent as irresponsible conduct, including with whom he talks and what he says.
So it is the case with Taiwan. This capitalist, democratic state is a good friend of America. But it exists in a bad neighborhood. Unless President-elect Trump is prepared to go to war on Taipei's behalf, he should pursue U.S. policy toward Taiwan with his head, not gut.