Trump, Taiwan, and a break in a long tradition

December 9, 2o16

Trump, Taiwan, and a break in a long tradition

by Jeffrey A. Bader

Image result for Taiwan's President Tsai

The news that President-elect Trump has spoken by phone to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen as part of the series of congratulatory calls on his election heightens concerns about Trump’s foreign policy deftness. There are serious risks posed by his failure to take briefings by government professionals, and he appears to have little respect for the potential damage of actions taken without understanding long-standing U.S. national security concerns.

The back story

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, no U.S. president or president-elect has had a face-to-face or telephone conversation with his Taiwan counterpart. This was an implicit part of the arrangement Washington accepted when it recognized the PRC as the sole legal government of all of China and agreed to conduct its relations with Taiwan on an unofficial basis.

Over the years, there have been tactical adjustments to ensure that U.S. officials can interact with Taiwan counterparts to pursue and protect our interests and to show proper respect for Taiwan and its democracy. However, our top-level officials—particularly the president—have always shown great care not to upset the post-1979 arrangements. There have been quiet, non-visible written communications between the top leaders of the United States (including presidents and presidents-elect) and Taiwan, but it has always been understood that direct conversations would cross a line not worth challenging.

Image result for Trump --Times Man of the Year

China’s claim to Taiwan is, and has long been, the most sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations. It was the principal obstacle to our getting together with Beijing before President Nixon’s 1972 trip, and negotiation of how to handle the issue—the handiwork of Presidents Nixon and Carter and Secretary Kissinger, Secretary Vance, and National Security Advisor Brzezinski—was the central feature of the three Joint Communiques laying the basis for our relationship. On every aspect of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan—whether it be U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, high-level meetings, military-to-military contacts, visits by senior officials, transits of the United States by Taiwan leaders, or bilateral U.S.-Taiwan agreements—there is a long history about what the United States can do consistent with its commitment to an “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan. The U.S. government does not suddenly, without preparation or reflection, change essential features in a framework that has served our interests, those of Taiwan, and those of the U.S.-China relationship. And most importantly, that has kept the peace in the region.

A break with the past

Unfortunately, President-elect Trump has waded into the thicket of U.S.-Taiwan relations without any apparent briefings by senior State Department officials intimately familiar with this long history. This phone call will likely to be interpreted by Beijing as something much more than a personal chat. The Chinese, unfortunately, are likely to see this as threatening a cornerstone of the edifice on which U.S.-China relations are built. The Chinese rarely overlook what they perceive a potential alteration in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. A look back at their conduct in 1995, when they undertook ballistic military exercises that threatened Taiwan in the wake of an unprecedented U.S. invitation to Taiwan’s president to speak at Cornell University, illustrates the Chinese mindset. We may neither like nor admire this, but we cannot ignore it.

This phone call will likely to be interpreted by Beijing as something much more than a personal chat.

It is too soon to tell if the Chinese will overreact by taking steps against either Taiwan or American interests. So far, it would appear that cooler heads will prevail in Beijing. They seem to be blaming Taiwan’s leadership, rather than publicly asserting that Trump or the United States was responsible. They may judge that they should show restraint in order to avoid rocking the boat too soon in their relationship with the incoming Trump administration. That is not an experiment, however, that Trump should have conducted. It will put Beijing more on edge to react harshly to future challenges by Trump . Additionally, relations between Beijing and Taipei are especially sensitive right now, since the election of the candidate of the historically pro-independence DPP party earlier this year. That prompted Beijing to cut off political ties with Taiwan until President Tsai recognizes the “one China principle” that, under various interpretations, underlies previous contacts. President Tsai cannot do that for reasons of politics and conviction, and before the Trump-Tsai conversation there was a risk that Beijing might increase pressure on a recalcitrant Taiwan in damaging ways. That risk can only be compounded by this gratuitous phone conversation.

The triangle of interests

It is not in Taiwan’s interest to see the framework of the U.S.-PRC-Taiwan relationship fundamentally altered. Restraint across the Taiwan Strait on the part of Beijing is essential for Taiwan’s security. Arms purchased from the United States and U.S. assurances of support under the Taiwan Relations Act passed after the lapse of the U.S.-Republic of China (Taiwan) security treaty in 1980 are valuable, but Chinese continued intention to resolve cross-Strait issues peacefully is at least as important. Thumbing our noses at Beijing on its most sensitive national and security issue may feel temporarily satisfying, but provoking it when it has many cards to play makes no strategic sense. One can empathize with President Tsai’s desire to establish contact with and gain respect from the incoming U.S. president. What is incomprehensible, however, is how the incoming U.S. president could casually ignore the historic and strategic factors that all eight presidents since Nixon have understood and acceded to the call.

There are many Republican officials who understand this history well and have been involved in managing it. They know the importance of the U.S. relationship with China, with Taiwan, and how we have protected both despite the sometimes contradictory challenges. A number of them declared their opposition to candidate Trump, and wounds may be slow in healing. President-elect Trump would be well-advised, however, to reach out to this large reservoir of talent, both for advice during the transition and to staff his administration, as well as to draw on the great expertise of State Department and intelligence community officials, who have years steeped in these problems. President-elect Trump is free to disregard their advice, but it is profoundly contrary to American, and his, interest to ignore it.

12 thoughts on “Trump, Taiwan, and a break in a long tradition

  1. Why is everyone so jittery? A businessman he is. Pragmatism is not new nor novel.

    Trump is Trump. An Ignoramus might not be truly so – for like the Medieval Court Jester – the Fool promotes Royal Policy. After all, isn’t the USofA becoming a Junta Led Trumpland, of sorts?

    Watch out all you of congenital epicanthic folds in Mainland PRC, for Trumpism is not to be trivialized. He will thump the world by thumbing his Trumpet. Reagan and Bush’s Starwars ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

  2. It’s interesting that this has become a hot issue on the news in American media, mostly condemning Trump’s provocative move, but the Chinese news media is pretty quiet about it. The quietness is an indication of the growing confidence of the Chinese and it is a kind of spooky to me. Are the Chinese quietly cooking up something?

    Anne Gearan, Philip Rucker and Simon Denyer of the Washington Post spoke with sources within the Taiwanese government and the Trump transitional team who confirmed the phone call was not a spontaneous call of congratulations. It was actually planned months in advance after extensive negotiations on each side. It was an “intentionally provocative move” designed to demonstrate the president-elect’s willingness to disperse with old diplomatic enmities and alliances.

    The good news is that after Kissinger, fresh from meeting with China’s leaders, visited him four days after the phone call, Trump seems chastened and he gets the big picture that antagonizing a nuclear power China over its core interests over Taiwan flies in the face of logic as China is America’s biggest trading partner and biggest holder US Treasury debt.

    The old Taiwanese spinster is still in heavenly euphoria but then she will wake one morning with that old feeling of impending doom. Taiwan is banged.

  3. The Obama administration’s image of “Mr Nice Guy” is over.

    Beijing will have to live with it, at least for the next 4 years, or declare war on Uncle Sam.

    However, the appointment of a Xi Jin Ping friendly ambassador to the Middle Kingdom signals a tone down of sorts which Xi can interpret in any way he wants.

    But Trump is unlikely to be a president that speaks loudly but carry a small stick.

    The World is in for a rough ride.

  4. CLF: “Why is everyone so jittery?”

    I wasn’t…

    Until I read what LaMoy had to say…that it was not spontaneous and that it was an “intentionally provocative move”.

    … Now, I am.

  5. Trump if he governs the US like the way he manages his business will probably stiff PRC just like the way he stiffs his contractors and vendors making them accept pennies off the dollar for what he owes them. PRC is holding trillion of dollars of USBonds and other securities and may one day wake up to find that these bonds are not worth anything. How can PRC address this dilemma ? Which international body have the power or jurisdiction to make the US pay up full measure?

    Yes the US will be a pariah nation but it would no longer be a debtor nation. Trump does not want the US to be the world policeman and instead focus on problems about unemployment at home. How would he address the unemployment of the soldiers once they are deployed back instead of fighting on the battle front. Most of the soldiers are volunteers coming from the reserves and National Guards. Presently in California the military is demanding the return of sign on bonuses from the veterans.

    China is the worlds factory. If China stop making shoes Americans will go barefoot. The US sells one Boeing airplane and China have to export a whole ship load of shoes just to pay for the plane quipped the Chinese Consul General in LA many moons ago when he participate in a Pacific Rim Business Seminar at a local university.

    Trump like Reagan will probably call the Chinese bluff and do a double dare or double jeapordy on matters in the SCS.

  6. Heheheh! Good one, Semper.
    How many times has he been bankrupted?

    This flur can stiff even stiffs (especially those mummified Washington Beltway ones) from what we read.

    He is probably an excellent tactician and good at mind games – but probably can’t see beyond the next deck of cards. Lacks theory of mind and acts out urges.
    But having so many Marines and Army Generals on board with combat experience would probably make wide-scale combat less likely, don’t you think? Soldiers are always leery of War, for the sake of war.

    However, Trumpism is like unrestrained one-upmanship and pulling back from the brink would be ‘difficult’. MENA’s FUBAR is a proxy war. But Syria was said to be actually responsible for the Lockerbie and cabaret atrocities, although Reagan cynically blamed Qaddafi. Furthermore, Trump owes Putin a debt of gratitude? He will probably give MENA a walkover and let the Saudi and UAE slaughter it out with Shia Iran. Good for business ya?

    And like Reagan, this ‘anti-hero’ has the tendency to apportion blame to the ‘Path of Least Resistance’. SCS seems a good place to start as any..

    We are in for interesting times, as usual buddy.

  7. @semper Fi, from what I can see, China does not want to be the factory of the world. Else, why the effort to make all the waves, literally. On the other hand, Trump is working on copying China what the local Chinese hoped it had not happen in their own nation. Lies, pollution and Inequality.

    To me, the sad reality is both will fail. Both nations would be hated by their own people and people in the rest.

    We Malaysians know that that feeling well. Layusian is spreading.

    Unlike LaMoy, my heart is for the Taiwanese and her first woman President.

    More to that, my heart is for the Chinese, the Americans, the Muslims, the Indians. Mostly, for humanity, we should weep.

    But, all mentioned above is no news. Perhaps, I should learn from history, why Mozi never existed more than a brief period in ancient China.

    I finally understood dilemma Melayu.

  8. katasayang:
    Maybe you should consider going back to school to take some English classes. Have I ever said my heart is not for Taiwan? My son-in-law is a Taiwanese and I share his worry about the deteriorating cross straits relations. Tsai is being used by Trump as a bargaining chip with China, at the detriment of Taiwan.

  9. LaMoy, I am sorry. I did misread 🤗 It clearly reflects my own bias where I have assumed too much when reading the adjective used to describe current Taiwan President. Perhaps, this is exactly how Trump has been successful in Trumping us, taking advantage of many of our pent up frustrations, Americans and Chinese at the same time, as in this specific case of leveraging differences between Taiwan and China.

    Personally, I do see the difficult position current Chinese leadership faces when keeping the nation intact. Every New Year comes another warning sign of impending economic collapse within the nation, and every winter comes report of worsening case of smog. SCS and One Belt One Road is one way to lead the nation forward and to keep the nation intact.

    Yet,.. I think you understand what comes after the yet… Perhaps, it is exactly those ‘yets’ that..

    When one is truly strong, one sought to be loved. When one is weak, one resort to have others fear us. I didn’t find the mainland weak. It saddened me to see that Xi-core resolved to using fear and cinstant demand of respect to gain respect. That is the “yet” lingering in my mind. Perhaps, I am living in a bubble where I have underestimated the internal weakness within China and United States at the same time.

    Perhaps, this is no longer a time that could afford a liberal world, as we all think we could be worse off, if we stop taking advantage of others .

  10. Semper fi: “Which international body have the power or jurisdiction to make the US pay up full measure?”.

    It won’t be an international body, but the citizens of the USA who will insist that their country pay for what she owes.

    There is simply no way that an American can show his/her face anywhere in the world, if America were to default on her debt.

  11. The more I read about what LaMoy has to say about the whole China/US issue the more I think folks should pay attention to what he says.

    And CLF is right about the Trumpism.

    I heard this on a TV show. “There are no victims only volunteers”, which best describe those who voted for this charlatan.

  12. CLF, soldiers are leery of war, for the sake of war. True over the years many US soldiers died in wars that are not even theirs to begin with, but they faithfully carry out the orders of the Commader-in-Chief and in this case the incoming CiC is acting like a big bully and flexing his muscles with the latest toys of war. He may not hesitate to test the new weapons as he feels that the US had paid a lot for an unproven weapon, case in point the F-35. Scary thought.

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