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Trump’s Taiwan call: Tempest in a teapot?

John J. Metzler December 7, 2016 2:09 PM (UTC+8)
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NEW YORK—US president-elect Donald Trump spoke with Taiwan’s leader in what amounted to a congratulatory phone call from Taipei. The ten minute chat with President Tsai Ing-wen touched on what the Trump team called “the close economic, political and security ties between Taiwan and the US. ” Yet the perfunctory but polite discussion broke a Beijing taboo that senior American officials can’t speak with their Taiwan counterparts.

Imagine for a moment a different scenario. When Barack Obama was president-elect, he regularly spoke of “reaching out” to entrenched adversaries and dictatorships as part of a new smart diplomacy which would challenge the status quo and offer the hand of friendship from the USA seeking new opportunities to solve age old and seemingly intractable problems. Obama’s moves were often praised as bold and innovative leadership in the face of a static status quo. But when the unpredictable Donald Trump “reached out” to the president of a democratic, albeit diplomatically isolated, Taiwan the mainstream media went into apoplectic overdrive.

Since Jimmy Carter opened de jure diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, no American president has officially spoken to Taiwan’s leaders. Donald Trump broke the logjam by speaking with Tsai Ing-wen, herself elected earlier in the year as the Republic of China’s first female president. The point is that Trump is President-elect and thus not making American policy. He is testing the waters but remains a private citizen.

Moreover, does Beijing have the power to tell a sovereign American with whom to speak? Still the PRC’s “One China Policy” accepted by Washington presumably allows Americans very little policy flexibility.

The New York Times warned on page one, “Trump disrupts China relations with Taiwan call, a Breach of Protocol.”

Even the more sober Wall Street Journal argued, “Trump Taiwan call risks China ire.”

But as the Taipei Times advised editorially, “Trump taking the call from Tsai not only helps put Taiwan back on the world map, but it sends a stern message to those nations who chose to kowtow to China’s bullying and let Beijing dictate what they can do.”

News of president-elect Trump’s phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai In-wen was treated by an incredulous media as a kind of diplomatic Tsunami triggered by the Donald to deliberately disrupt the fragile if static status quo between rival Chinese governments in Beijing and Taipei. It also tests the parameters of the rigid relationship between Beijing and Washington.

Whether one congratulatory phone call across the Pacific can disrupt the reasonably placid waters across the Taiwan Straits is disputable. At first Beijing was decidedly cautious in criticism; now there’s a crescendo of predictable and well rehearsed bluster about “reckless” moves towards what it considers a “renegade province.” Ironically there appeared to be more caustic critiques and political bromides from the American media than from Beijing who understands the deep reality of the wider USA/PRC relationship.

Yet Taipei’s respected China Post warned editorially, “Catapulting Taiwan into the international limelight works in Tsai’s favor as an embattled president struggling to shore up domestic support, but the question is, at what cost?”

Back in mid-December 1978, President Jimmy Carter did an end run around Congress and unexpectedly announced a switch of US diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China effective 1 January 1979. Ronald Reagan, then a candidate for president the following year, regularly rebuked Carter’s move and spoke of his warm and positive feeling towards Taiwan, an island he had visited as California Governor and with whom he hinted of a renewed political relationship.

Though Reagan never switched diplomatic ties back to Taipei, in the subsequent years the de facto unofficial economic and political ties between Taiwan and the USA has grown dramatically. That’s unofficial with layers of nuance and obfuscation.

But in the Trump Template the People’s Republic of China represents one of his key campaign themes; the loss of American jobs and the unfair and growing trade deficits. In 2015 the US trade deficit with the PRC reached $367 billion. Even a decade ago, the PRC/USA deficit was already $202 billion. Two-way US/Taiwan trade last year reached $67 billion. Moreover China’s assertive geopolitical moves in the South China Sea are seen as a direct challenge to American interests.

The Obama Administration’s lauded but politically half-hearted Pacific Pivot has not significantly improved the US position.

Michael Pillsbury, Director of Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute said, “Trump is already putting into practice his years of experience and writing about how to negotiate with the Chinese.”

So it seems what the Donald may be doing as a brash businessman is offering a wink to the competition just to get the bigger deal back on track. Leverage is what Trump understands.

How this tactic will work with both Beijing and Taipei remains unpredictable.

 

John J. Metzler
John J. Metzler is a longtime UN correspondent covering diplomatic, defense and developmental issues. He is the author of a number of books such as Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China. He's a regular visitor to the region.
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