On Friday, the Financial Times confirmed that U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump had moved forward on a planned phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. The call represents the first contact between a U.S. president-elect (or president, for that matter) and a Taiwanese head of state since U.S. President Jimmy Carter acknowledged the Communist Party of China government in Beijing under the “one China” policy. The call could spark the first major foreign policy crisis for the incoming Trump administration with China, which will see the call as suggestive of an epochal change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The government of China had not reacted to the call as of this writing.
Somewhat distressingly, the FT notes that it “is not clear if the Trump transition team intended the conversation to signal a broader change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” suggesting that this could simply have been borne of a misunderstanding about existing U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan within Trump’s transition team. (Earlier in November, there were reports that Trump was seeking to pursue development projects in Taiwan, imbuing the whole episode with a conflict-of-interest angle as well.)
Taiwan and China maintain diplomatic ties with a mutually exclusive set of countries, with each bilateral partner recognizing either Taipei or Beijing as the exclusive host to the government of China. The United States maintains no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but unofficially, Washington’s relations with the island — which China sees as a rightful part of its territory — are governed by the Taiwan Relations Act. Most contacts are carried out through the semi-official American Institute in Taiwan, which functions as a de facto U.S. embassy; direct high-level political contacts are a clear red line for Beijing. The ambiguity governing U.S. interaction with Taiwan has been carefully balanced since 1979 and Trump’s one phone call represents the greatest jolt to the tightrope that previous U.S. presidents have walked.
It’s entirely unclear how China will choose to react to Trump’s provocative phone call. Beijing is already disappointed by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party government, given the party’s pro-independence leanings. One possibility is that the domestic reaction in Taiwan to the phone call could govern the extent to which China expresses its displeasure. The Taipei Times, reporting on the call, already suggested it could be a step toward institutionalizing channels of communication between Taipei and Washington’s top leaders.
If Trump’s outreach is widely read in Taiwan as a signal that the United States will throw its full military might behind the island in the case of a unilateral declaration of independence, Beijing could take drastic action, including putting a freeze to high-level diplomacy with Washington or cutting off relations altogether. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that the president-elect — not the current Obama administration — took the step of reaching out to Tsai, meaning retaliation might have to wait until Trump’s inauguration in January to avoid mixed messages.
Relations between Taiwan and China have noticeably entered a cooler period since Tsai’s inauguration. Beijing suspended cross-strait collaboration with Taipei after it was unsatisfied with Tsai’s treatment of the so-called “1992 consensus,” which had governed cross-strait relations under previous Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou. Within Taiwan, a surge of civic nationalism, spurred on by youth activism, led to a decisive victory for the independence-leaning DPP and a repudiation of Ma’s Nationalist Party or KMT, which enjoyed better cross-strait ties.
Despite the FT’s lack of information on the extent to which the call was planned, it is possible that Trump was egged on here by his Asia advisers. For example, Peter Navarro, a Trump adviser on Asia, penned an op-ed in the National Interest advocating for muscular U.S. backing for Taiwan following Tsai’s victory and the surge in Taiwanese nationalism.
In the op-ed Navarrao bemoans Bill Clinton’s decision to renounce U.S. backing for Taiwanese independence in 1998, describing a “throw-Taiwan-under-the-bus” move. U.S. policy, delivered through carefully calculated ambiguity, has been to prevent a change in the status quo across the Taiwan Strait — that means equal opposition to Taiwan unilaterally declaring independence as well as China moving to forcibly “unite” the two. (For China’s People’s Liberation Army, a Taiwan strait contingency remains the primary war-fighting scenario.)
Friday’s call with Tsai represents Trump’s second phone call-related mishap this week after Pakistan released an unusually candid readout of the president-elect’s comments this week in a chat with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. (I wrote on that for The Diplomat earlier.) Between the two incidents, we see a distressing possibility for early foreign policy crises in the Asia-Pacific in a Trump administration.
As I noted on election night, the Taiwan Strait is one of the geopolitical Flashpoints likeliest to see a major conflagration under a Trump presidency. Friday’s phone call makes the 21st century’s “first” Taiwan crisis all the more likely.
Update: The Trump campaign has posted its readout of the call between Tsai and Trump:
President-elect Trump spoke with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, who offered her congratulations. During the discussion, they noted the close economic, political, and security ties exist between Taiwan and the United States. President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.
As Patrick Chovanec observed on Twitter, whatever the impression of the call may be from the Taiwanese side, the mere fact that Trump called Tsai the “president of Taiwan” in an official readout will cause a conniption in China.