Trump’s phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan on Friday generated headlines screaming that Trump had broken with decades-old One China policy. It was the first known contact between a U.S. president (or, in this case, president-elect) and a Taiwanese leader since 1979 during the Carter Administration. Some publications argued that it forced the Obama White House to respond by affirming its commitment to maintaining the current policy.
So is this a signal that Donald Trump could seek to deviate from America’s long-standing one-China policy upon taking office next month? Or did he just take a congratulatory call from Taiwan, a major trading partner, while putting the world on notice that part of making America Great Again means not taking orders about who our nation can or cannot talk to? Most of all, is this much ado about nothing or the making of a legitimate crisis?
Explaining the One-China Policy
China has had a tumultuous relationship with the small island off its eastern coast since Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled their following their defeat to the Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-tung. They are sensitive to international relationships with the island, and consistently seek to coerce the island with threats of military aggression. Overall, the United States tries not to aggravate the situation. Since the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, it has been the policy of the United States to recognize Taiwan as part of China.
The One-China policy is a diplomatic balancing act between respecting China’s claim to the territory and maintaining close ties to Taiwan, our ninth-largest trading partner who increasingly is moving away from the mainland’s influence.
According to National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, in 1992, 17.6 percent of the people living in Taiwan identified as Taiwanese only. By June 2013, that number was 57.5 percent, a clear majority. Only 3.6 percent of those surveyed identified as Chinese only. Furthermore, the 2011 Taiwan National Security Survey found that if one assumes China would not attack Taiwan if it declared its independence, 80.2 percent of Taiwanese would in fact opt for independence. Another recent poll found that about 80 percent of Taiwanese view Taiwan and China as different countries. Source: The National Interest
“The United States does not support Taiwan independence,” reads a State Department fact sheet updated just this September. But, it continues, “maintaining strong, unofficial relations with Taiwan is a major U.S. goal, in line with the U.S. desire to further peace and stability in Asia.”
The Chinese Roll Their Eyes
Trump, having an open (and public) call with the Taiwanese leader, stirred up nationalistic fervor in China whose government responded by lodging a formal complaint to Washington. “We have noticed relevant reports and lodged solemn representation with the relevant side in the United States,” said a statement Saturday from China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang as reported by CNN.
In the sphere of international relations, this is little more than an a temper tantrum. China may not be thrilled with a cozier relationship with Taiwan. However, after eight years of enjoying President Obama’s complete indifference towards the Asian democracy, they aren’t exactly panicking either. One call will not spark a war. It will certainly place more strain on the relationship between the two world powers.
Chinese media has also been unforgiving. As the National Review reports: “To throw a tantrum about China will neither solve domestic issues in the U.S. nor address the real challenges facing Trump’s new administration,” Jia Xiudong fumed yesterday morning in People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. “Besides, a shaky China–U.S. relationship cannot ‘make America great again.’”
Trump’s Detractors Freak Out
For the left, Trump’s actions are considered reckless and a justification as to their fears over his election. He’s considered a novice on the world stage at best, and a reckless maverick steering the nation towards disaster at worst. Detractors are quick to deride the president-elect for flaunting his indifference to the One-China policy and conclude taking this call is a testament to his arrogance and lack of international geopolitical savvy.
Many in the mainstream media, still in denial about the election night snub of Hillary Clinton, echoed these concerns as they flipped out. “The Trump administration’s relationship with China just started off badly,” Vox hastily concluded. “It is hard to overstate the bottomless pig-ignorance and recklessness of this step,” chided The Atlantic. The article later adding that the Trump administration’s relationship with Beijing has stepped off on “the very, very wrong foot.” CNN sounded off with their typical apocalyptic message. They stated that “It is perhaps the first major sign of the unpredictability that Trump has vowed to bring to long-held US relations with the rest of the world.”
Half-Cocked or Fully Loaded? The Trump Plan
In case America (and the world) hasn’t figured it out, Trump is a new kind of leader. He will not take orders on which foreign phone calls he may or may not accept. This was not diplomatic inexperience or something done in the heat of the moment like one of his Twitter rants. According to the Washington Post, “Donald Trump’s protocol-breaking telephone call with Taiwan’s leader was an intentionally provocative move that establishes the incoming president as a break with the past, according to interviews with people involved in the planning.”
Trump spent a considerable amount of time in his campaign pledging to be tough on China. Arranging and accepting this call is the first step in that direction. He has no intention of keeping up the charade every president since Carter has by trading with Taiwan, but failing to recognizing its existence. In his eyes, the One-China policy has accomplished nothing.
They remain a repressive regime, serial violator of trade rules and intellectual property. China is a currency manipulator, purveyor of cyber-terrorism, and instigator of industrial espionage. Worst of all, they are becoming more aggressive militarily. They even builds fake islands in the Pacific in an illegal bid to alter its borders and threaten our allies in the region. And their actions have largely gone unchecked.
Right or wrong, that is about to change in a big way. There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Donald Trump. To his supporters, it’s a welcome change. To his detractors, it’s validation for everything they believe is wrong with the man about to become the 45th president of the United States.