The Tsai-Trump Call: The Dynamics in Taiwan

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The Tsai-Trump Call: The Dynamics in Taiwan

Most analysis of the call overlooks a crucial component: Tsai’s own calculations and the domestic reaction on Taiwan.

The Tsai-Trump Call: The Dynamics in Taiwan

President Tsai Ing-wen waves during National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan, October 10, 2016.

Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The 10-minute telephone conversation between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. president-elect Donald J. Trump on December 2 — the first such conversation between a sitting president in Taiwan and a U.S. president or president-elect since Washington broke official diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979 — has sparked reactions worldwide, ranging from consternation at Trump’s breaking with longstanding policy to hopes for deeper relations between the United States and the democratic island nation.

With much of Western media taking the lead in presuming to interpret Beijing’s ire at news of the unprecedented congratulatory call from Tsai, the incident and its significance were quickly blown out of proportion, so much so, in fact, that Beijing, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting unification — by force if necessary — may have felt compelled to turn up the rhetoric a notch after a rather mild initial response. Taking a cue from the hyperbole in many Western media, ultra-nationalistic Chinese media soon followed suit, with the Global Times going as far as to call Trump’s team “pigs,” and suggest the need for a rapid buildup of China’s strategic nuclear stockpile to counter any “provocation” by President Trump on issues such as Taiwan.

In the week since the call, the hundreds of articles written about and interviews given on the subject worldwide have largely focused on the mechanics of the call — Was it planned in advance? If so, who was involved? Analysts wonder whether Trump’s “creative destruction” might hint at future rapprochement between the United States and its Asian ally, or if the call was simply Trump adopting a maximalist position so as to negotiate from a position of strength on several issues, and how this could affect the larger, and ultimately much more important, relationship between the world’s first and second-largest economies. What is known, according to well-placed sources, is that Beijing did not have foreknowledge of the call. (Poor Henry Kissinger, who happened to be in China at the time, must have been treated to a heated question or two.)

As is often the case, little effort was made to analyze why Taiwan’s first female president, in office since May 20 and brought to power in January via democratic instruments, was willing to place a call that, if Trump picked up at the other end of the line, was certain to spark some controversy. Even less was said, with a few notable exceptions, about reactions in Taiwan, particularly its 23 million citizens, who far too often in the rare instances of international attention are denied, by omission rather than design, a voice of their own, as if all of them were little more than insentient subjects to the implacable waves of history or the dictates of decisionmakers in Washington and Beijing.

By denying them agency and negating their right to self-determination — both the end results of sustained Chinese propaganda and longstanding diplomatic processes that refuse to acknowledge the facts on the ground — this incomplete analysis of the U.S.-Taiwan-China relationship often transforms the peace-loving people of a successful liberal-democracy into potential disruptors of the great power stability that, we assume, benefits us all. It also portrays anyone who breaks with longstanding practices, as Trump did on Friday, as reckless and dangerous — hence media references to Trump’s “weekend antics,” describing him as a “diplomatic rookie.” Worse, by denying Taiwanese a voice, we often suggest — or encourage the suggestion in some circles — that Taiwanese leaders have nefarious motives whose effects cannot but be detrimental to the continuation of stable international relations.

Why Did Tsai Place the Call?

Several factors may have led Tsai to place the call to Trump, which it should be clear did not occur on a whim and required prior consultations by both sides. And yet, in the millions of words written and spoken in the past week as pundits sought to find meaning in this break from the norm, very few attempts were made to identify and analyze those motivations. It was far easier — or a better story, perhaps — to ascribe the call (and subsequent Tweets) to Trump’s recklessness and inexperience, or to blow the incident out of proportion and thus give it a transformative potential that has little, if any, relationship with reality.

Why would Tsai, president of a democratic country facing a constant military threat from nuclear-armed authoritarian China and head of the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), risk undermining the fragile stability in the Taiwan Strait by placing a call that was sure to cause some ripples in Beijing, which is ever-watchful of any signs of U.S. involvement in what it regards as its internal affairs? One thing is certain: Tsai is not her predecessor from the DPP, Chen Shui-bian, whose risk-taking presidency between 2000 and 2008 is often regarded as having soured relations with both the United States, Taiwan’s main security guarantor, and China. Whatever the merits of such accusations against Chen, there is reason to believe that the Tsai administration has a much better awareness of the limits to what it can achieve and a better sense of Beijing’s red lines. Moreover, starting with her election campaign in 2015, Tsai has enjoyed constructive relations with U.S. officials and has done much to reassure the Obama administration that she does not intend to cause trouble in the Taiwan Strait. Undoubtedly, her refusal to give in to Beijing’s demands that she acknowledge the so-called “1992 consensus” and subscribe to “one China” has angered Beijing, which has retaliated by cutting some — albeit not all, as has been claimed — official means of communication between Taipei and Beijing, ostensibly reducing Taiwan-bound investment and tourism, and limiting Taiwan’s ability to engage multilateral organizations such as the International Civilian Aviation Organization (ICAO) and, more recently, Interpol.

Nevertheless, although Beijing has blamed souring relations on Tsai’s “intransigence,” it is generally accepted, both in Taiwan and in Washington, that her cross-strait policies have so far been responsible and reflective of the mandate that was given her by democratic means — support for unification in Taiwan has been steadily dropping over the past two decades and is at an all-time single-digit low. Moreover, the Tsai administration has committed to honoring the more than 20 agreements that were signed with China during the Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016), and has more than once signaled its intention to maintain cordial relations with China, Taiwan’s most important trade partner.

Unable to break from its nationalistic rhetoric, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has painted itself into a corner regarding the situation with Taiwan, making it difficult to recalibrate its policies in a way that better reflects current realities as doing so would constitute an admission of defeat that Party officials are unwilling to face. Thus, despite Tsai’s early overtures to China, Beijing’s response has been to narrow Taiwan’s international space, blocking Taiwan’s ability to participate in international organizations despite strong U.S. lobbying on its behalf.

This sense of isolation, along with the belief that Washington’s ability to convince the international community to engage with Taiwan was being eroded by Beijing’s countermeasures, no doubt contributed to the need for the Tsai administration to make symbolic gains. As Beijing tries to limit Taiwan’s international space, Taipei cannot afford to remain static: it must push back so as to reposition itself within the confines of an acceptable “status quo.”

Additionally, apprehensions surrounding the possibility that President Trump could abandon his predecessor’s “pivot” to Asia — the brainchild of Hillary Clinton, his opponent in the recent U.S. elections — or strike a “grand bargain” with China, whereby security guarantees to Taiwan would be obviated, have compelled Taipei, as well as U.S. officials and staff in Trump’s transition team to dispel uncertainty and provide some reassurance of continuity. While the phone call was largely insufficient as an indicator of future U.S. policy vis-à-vis Taiwan and China, it nevertheless had symbolic value that helped to assuage fears of abandonment, the eternal nightmare of small allies facing rising revisionist powers.

Already accused by more conservative and impatient “deep green” factions within her own camp of being too soft or too concessionary on China (Tsai is no Lee Teng-hui, and this isn’t the 1990s, when the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait was markedly different and more favorable to Taiwan), Tsai also needed to demonstrate, if only for the purpose of domestic politics, that she was willing to take calculated risks to defend the nation’s honor and, just as importantly, that she could persuade the U.S. side to play along.

It was a gamble, no doubt, which was bound to spark reactions in Beijing. However, if the status quo becomes untenable — and China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan in recent months may well have encouraged such perceptions — the weaker party is bound to take some risks to shake things up. Whether it was survivable, and ultimately wise, will largely be contingent on what happens next, on whether, and if so where, Beijing chooses to retaliate, and how, if it does at all, the Trump administration in turn reacts to the unfolding situation. The best outcome for Tsai would be for the incoming U.S. administration to stick by its ally and perhaps strengthen the bilateral relationship with Taiwan. The worst-case scenario would be for the call to have damaged relations in the Taiwan Strait and for the Trump administration to reverse course, leaving Taiwan out in the cold to face Beijing’s wrath alone. Either way, it’s too soon to tell.

Reactions in Taiwan

While international reactions to the call abroad have been diverse (though inexplicably unfavorable to Taiwan in certain liberal media, where the democracy is often regarded as a quasi-rogue state), back in Taiwan the response has been highly optimistic, resulting even in bipartisan support in a country where political division is, sadly, far too often the norm.

For most people in Taiwan, from street vendors to politicians, the response has been positive: acknowledgment, at last, of their country’s existence and of the legitimacy of their elected president, by the leader of a major country. It is a matter of dignity that is shared by people from both the “green” and “blue” camp, which, though divided on several issues, are of the same mind when it comes to recognition of their right to exist as citizens of a sovereign entity.

Some members of the deep green camp may have been emboldened by the call and the suggestion of closer ties with a possibly more ideologically-motivated ally in the Republicans, which could result in greater pressure on Tsai to “do more.” However, for the majority of Taiwanese the call was treated with guarded optimism; a welcome sign, undoubtedly, but far too early to indicate a sudden shift in U.S. policy. Very few people treated Trump’s use of the word “Taiwan,” rather than its official designation, the Republic of China, as anything other than convenient shorthand. The Taiwanese are above all pragmatic and conscious, after decades of isolation, that the road to full recognition as a sovereign state will be a long one.

Politicians from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP) also welcomed the call, if perhaps begrudgingly among KMT officials who certainly wished such a breakthrough, if we can call it that, had occurred when KMT President Ma, who claimed U.S.-Taiwan relations were at their best under his watch, was in office. Given the favorable response by the Taiwanese public, and tempting though it was to depict Tsai’s gamble as irresponsible, it would have been difficult, if not politically suicidal, for anyone in the opposition camp to denounce the call.

Thus, from a domestic standpoint, the call’s immediate repercussions were likely to boost Tsai’s image with the public as her honeymoon period comes to a close and her support ratings drop accordingly.

Said Hu Wen-chi, deputy director of the KMT’s Culture and Communications Committee: “The KMT welcomes the call and appreciates the United States’ support for Taiwan.” Hu nevertheless suggested Taiwan’s National Security Council evaluate the exchange to determine whether it was a mere courtesy call or the first steps of a tuning point in U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Even KMT chairperson Hung Hsiu-chu, Beijing’s favorite in the 2016 elections (before she was replaced as her party’s nominee) and a strong proponent of closer ties with China, had positive things to say about the call. As long as the development was “good for Taiwan,” she said, she was “pleased to see there is good communication between Taiwan and the United States,” adding that continued U.S. support for Taiwan was “a good thing.”

A few lonely voices in the KMT nevertheless tried to raise questions about the nature of the call and perhaps remove some of the shine off Tsai’s performance. Echoing Hung’s call for more transparency on the call, Lee Yan-hsiu, deputy secretary-general of the KMT caucus, hinted that Tsai and Trump “may” have discussed — with no shred of evidence that this was the case — lifting a ban on the import of U.S. pork containing the food additive ractopamine, a political hot potato, to mix edibles, between parties in Taiwan and an impediment, according to Washington, to closer economic ties with the United States.

Nevertheless, despite questions on such trivial matters, added to speculation that Trump may have agreed to take the call in order to secure a hotel deal in northern Taiwan (if money were the sole determinant of his decisions, he can make a lot more of that in China), nobody seemed to dispute the fundamental positives of the call. The response among politicians, as stated above, stemmed largely from the widely popular reception to the unprecedented call taking place and the dignity that this hugely symbolic development gave to a people who have long strived for their rightful place among the community of nations.