Last Friday’s phone call between U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — the first presidential interaction between the two sides since U.S. President Jimmy Carter ended formal diplomatic relations in 1979 — has hinted at a possible change to relations between the two sides. Shortly after the Financial Times reported that the call had taken place, I ran through some of the possible implications for both cross-strait ties and U.S.-Taiwan relations. (David Graham in The Atlantic also presents a good round-up of the reasons for the U.S. status quo policy.) Additionally, Shannon Tiezzi discussed the reaction from Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi putting out a statement that effectively gave Donald Trump a pass and blamed Taiwan for its “little trick.” (The reaction would likely have been very different had Trump been in office at the time of the call.)
What has gone relatively unaddressed in coverage of the call in the United States is what the Taiwanese side makes of all this. First, on Saturday, the South China Morning Post introduced an important detail that had been misreported earlier on Friday. Citing Alex Huang, Tsai’s presidential spokesman, the SCMP confirmed that the call had been initiated by Taiwan — meaning that Trump’s tweet revealing that the “President of Taiwan” called him was true. The SCMP report also clarified that on the president-elect’s side, Edwin Feulner, founder of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank, facilitated the call.
As I discussed on Friday, there is plenty of evidence that Trump is surrounded by a coterie of advisers who strongly support closer ties between the United States and Taiwan. When the call first took place and it was reported that the Trump team had set it up, it appeared at first that the president-elect may have been goaded into the status quo-defying call by advisers and others close to the campaign, including Peter Navarro and John Bolton. (Both Bolton and Navarro have authored articles calling for a substantial re-think of U.S. support for Taiwan, prompting closer ties — Bolton has gone as far to suggest “a diplomatic ladder of escalation” with China.)
Context for the Call
For Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), initiating a historic phone call with the incoming U.S. president is not necessarily suggestive of an incoming push for de jure independence from Taiwan. Instead, the decision may represent more careful diplomatic maneuvering on Taiwan’s apart. Tsai, as was made clear from her campaign for the presidency, her inauguration speech, and her conduct as Taiwan’s president, clearly understands Beijing’s “red lines” for the island. Any serious hint of a push for de jure independence could lead to serious conflict with China; accordingly, her government — and the government of the United States — have not made independence a policy objective.
However, Tsai’s administration has effectively been boxed in by Beijing. First, there was Tsai’s inauguration speech. After Beijing was not satisfied with Tsai’s rhetorical treatment of the so-called “1992 consensus” — the understanding between Taipei and Beijing that there is “one China,” with differing interpretations of what that means — cross-strait communications were unilaterally suspended by China. The decision to do so was casually announced by Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office about a month into Tsai’s tenure.
Further boxing the DPP in, China went to great pains in 2015 and early 2016 to emphasize its preference for continued rule by the KMT, or Kuomintang, in Taiwan. Unfortunately for Beijing, the popular backlash against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement brokered by the KMT administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, encapsulated in the Sunflower Movement, led to a popular surge for the independence-leaning DPP. Tsai won the election with a comfortable mandate, with her victory underlining the extent to which “Taiwanization” would become an irreversible force in the island’s politics.
Beijing sees the political winds in Taiwan as inherently unfavorable to the sustenance of harmonious cross-strait ties in line with the “1992 consensus.” Its method of dealing with Tsai’s victory, however, has been to deploy blunt force. In addition to unilaterally ending cross-strait communications, Beijing has sought to remind Taipei that the island’s economic exposure to mainland means that not playing by the “old rules” will be to Taiwan’s detriment. That’s not entirely untrue either — 40 percent of Taiwanese exports, representing 70 percent of GDP, first head to China. Taiwanese economic growth fell below 1 percent in 2015 as well, with voter dissatisfaction with the KMT’s handling of wage growth, real estate prices, and the labor market also helping in Tsai’s win.
In her first seven months in office, Tsai hasn’t shown a clear way to reconcile her twin mandates on bringing Taiwan economic prosperity without giving in to Beijing on rejecting the island’s increasingly “Taiwan-ized” political identity. Beijing wants the DPP administration to recognize that conceding on the latter is the only way for Taiwan to attain the former. For the moment, the DPP has been reluctant to accept that. Tsai, for instance, told the Taipei Times in mid-November — after Trump’s electoral win — that her government would continue to seek closer trade ties with other Asian nations. Part of this push is encapsulated in the “New Southbound Policy,” which seeks to closely integrate Taiwan with the 500-million-strong ASEAN economies. (ASEAN is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner after China.)
A Considered Move?
The above is a fair bit of context, but it may matter immensely in decoding the significance of the Trump-Tsai phone call. As her mid-November interview with the Taipei Times further suggests, Tsai knows that to spur growth, Taiwan needs to probe new avenues in trade. “As an ‘insular economy,’ Taiwan is fundamentally dependent on trade; therefore we need to improve our economic links with neighboring Asian states and other nations in the region, put all our effort into developing bilateral ties and aggressively pursue national participation in regional economic cooperative relationships,” she said.
Trump, of course, is no proponent of regional, multilateral trade deals, as his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership has made clear. While Taipei may have given up any lingering hope of one day entering the TPP network, Taiwan has no doubt picked up on the Trump team’s support for bilateral free trade agreements. On Saturday, Taiwan’s presidential office released its readout of the call and the contents are revealing. The Taiwanese side notes that Tsai and Trump “shared their views and principles regarding key policy matters, particularly the need to promote domestic economic development and strengthen national defense so that citizens can enjoy better lives and increased security.”
The readout adds that “The two also briefly exchanged views on conditions in the Asian region. Commenting on future Taiwan-US relations, President Tsai expressed hope that the two sides can enhance bilateral interactions and liaison so as to build a closer cooperative relationship.” Finally, “President Tsai also told President-elect Trump that she hopes the U.S. will continue to support Taiwan in its quest for more opportunities to participate in international affairs and make contributions.” After the call, Taiwan’s envoy in the United States, Stanley Kao, remarked that the call represented progress in ties between the two sides, further suggesting that the call and its effects had been considered by Taiwan.
Tsai, unsurprisingly, took the opportunity to emphasize core areas where Taiwan could benefit from additional U.S. support. Given previous interaction between the Tsai administration and Trump advisers, Tsai’s office likely knew that Trump would be receptive to the call. Even if the impulse wasn’t to push Trump to look favorably on Taiwanese interests, Tsai has expressed concern that “Trump’s isolationism will cause Asian nations to move closer into China’s orbit and lead to heavier resistance to the ‘new southbound policy.'” Taipei may have been looking to convey to the U.S. president the importance of not pulling back from Asia, which would allow Chinese influence to expand.
Of course, not everything went according to plan. For instance, as the Taipei Times notes, “Trump’s open acknowledgment of the call on Twitter caught Tsai’s team by surprise” (though Taipei likely did not seriously expect this call to stay out of the press). Taiwan’s intent with this call may have been to push back against Beijing, showing that the false dichotomy of choosing between the “Taiwanization” mandate and the economic development mandate could be redressed by pursuing closer ties with the United States. China, based on its reaction to the call, may have gotten precisely this message.
What Lies Ahead?
Going forward, a lot will hinge on how the Trump administration evaluates the necessity of a recalibration of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. One status quo-defying call doesn’t portend a revolution in U.S. Taiwan policy. The Trump campaign said little about the issue. The Heritage Foundation’s outline of U.S.-Taiwan relations and the Taiwan Relations Act may be instructive given Feulner’s reported involvement, but here too the call isn’t to back Taiwanese independence. Rather, Heritage’s outline supports more muscular U.S. backing for Taiwan along all axes — defense, trade, investment, and people-to-people ties. (Fortunately, nothing like Bolton’s “diplomatic escalation ladder” makes an appearance.)
For China, the Trump-Tsai conversation is a wake-up call that it may need to be ready to impose punitive costs on Washington for any deviation from the status quo of “strategic ambiguity” that Beijing has tolerated since the late-1990s, when Bill Clinton articulated support for the “Three Nos” in the U.S. view of the situation across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s sheer size and clout give it considerable influence here as China is critical to a range of other initiatives in the Asia-Pacific that may be of interest to the incoming Trump administration, including the North Korean nuclear problem and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas.
A repeat Trump-Tsai phone call after January 20, when Trump enters office, or even an idle tweet from Trump referring to Tsai as the “President of Taiwan” could have the effect of China freezing diplomatic ties with the United States. (China and Taiwan maintain bilateral ties with a mutually exclusive set of countries, each of whom recognizes just one of their governments.) Much will depend on how Trump’s Asia advisers choose to assess the costs and benefits of pursuing U.S.-Taiwan rapprochement, but China’s reaction could impress on the them the reasons that successive U.S. administrations since Carter have stuck to a “one China” policy. According to the Washington Post, Trump is taking a keen interest in the U.S. posture toward China. Stephen Yates, a Republican national security advisor, told the Post that Trump has made this a “personal priority.”
Road to Conflict?
U.S. policy toward Taiwan — between “strategic ambiguity” and the Taiwan Relations Act — has sought to allow Taiwan to prosper as a de facto country while allowing for broad-based diplomacy with China. U.S.-based critics of the status quo, however, resent that China has effectively been given a veto on U.S. policy and interactions with Taiwan, a liberal democracy of 23 million with close people-to-people and security ties with the United States. Among ideological neoconservatives (Bolton, for example), there is a push for throwing more muscular U.S. support behind Taiwan.
If China senses that these voices will be a driving force of Trump’s Asia policy, then the odds of a serious diplomatic decline between these two powers may be in the offing. In a sense, the nightmare scenario for Beijing is a simultaneous consensus about closer U.S.-Taiwan ties emerging in both Taipei and Washington. The overlap in tenures between Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s first DPP president, and George W. Bush, a U.S. president with a significant coterie of neoconservative advisors, highlighted this to an extent, but Chen presided over a very different Taiwan — one before the Ma Ying-jeou years and the ensuing surge in civic nationalism. (Under Chen, a bilateral U.S.-Taiwan FTA gained prominence on Taiwan’s diplomatic agenda.)
The strongest justification for U.S. status quo policy for years has been that it provides stability, even as Taiwanese identity continues to shift. Tsai, the United States and China have to reckon with the possibility that the forces of formal Taiwanization are irreversible. As I wrote after Tsai’s election win, for Washington, “understanding how to reconcile its status quo support for Taiwan under a policy of strategic ambiguity while acknowledging the Taiwanese people’s genuine democratic aspirations to assert a uniquely Taiwanese identity will be critical.”
For the Trump team, this will likely translate into a wholehearted embrace of Taiwan. As long as this will have support from Taiwan’s democratically elected leaders, who are keenly aware of Beijing’s red lines on independence, expect to see change in U.S.-Taiwan relations accompanied by sharply worse U.S.-China ties and cross-strait ties. Even though no one expects Taiwan to move toward a de jure declaration of independence any time soon, the risks of conflict rise should Taipei miscalculate U.S. military backing for Taiwan in the event of a cross-strait conflict or if Beijing senses that Washington is goading independence backers in Taiwan.
As with other aspects of the incoming administration’s foreign policy, if there is anything new to be said about where the United States will come down on Taiwan, it should be outlined clearly, leaving nothing to chance. U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence simply described the call as a “courtesy,” but that’ll do little to calm Beijing’s nerves. Despite the relatively muted statement from Foreign Minister Wang, China contacted the White House after the call, seeking a reaffirmation of the U.S. “one China” policy (which is also emphasized by U.S. leaders before every presidential phone call with their Chinese counterpart, per Beijing’s wishes).
The Tsai-Trump phone call, with input from both sides, gives us the first suggestion since the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in the mid-1990s that the careful geopolitical equilibrium ensuring peace on the island could be upended. Tsai’s move, as I’ve outlined above, was likely calculated, but without clarity on Taiwan policy from the incoming U.S. administration, the odds of a Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis — or worse — have increased.
Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat, where he writes on geopolitics, security, and economics in the Asia-Pacific region. Follow him on Twitter at @nktpnd.