Last month I visited Taiwan, off the coast of China, to check out the repercussions of a historic phone call between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and President-elect Donald Trump.
Initially, the Taiwanese were elated by the Dec. 2 call — the first such contact between leaders in Taipei and the United States since 1979. That’s when Washington switched its recognition from the government of Taiwan to the government of mainland China. Most other countries followed suit.
However, the United States retained warm, informal relations with Taipei, whose leaders hoped the congratulatory call would intensify those ties. Then came Donald Trump’s follow-up tweets and interviews, which turned the brief exchange into a challenge to U.S.-China policy as a whole.
This worried Taiwanese leaders, who never intended to provoke a major U.S.-China confrontation. As I heard from government officials, legislators, think-tankers and journalists in Taipei, many fear Trump sees them simply as a bargaining chip in a trade war with China. They also fear that China will make Taiwan pay for Trump’s provocations.
The whole episode illustrates how careless words or tweets from Trump can undermine valid efforts to upgrade policy and harm the allies the changes are meant to help.
A bit of history is needed to understand why the China-Taiwan issue could become the first big foreign policy crisis of the Trump presidency. After the nationalist Chinese lost the civil war to the Communists, their leader, Chiang Kai-shek, fled in 1949 with thousands of followers to Taiwan. He set up an authoritarian state that he claimed was the rightful government of all of China; China, on the other hand, said Taiwan was a renegade province of the government in Beijing.
Despite these tensions, Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, gradually introduced democratic elections to the island in the 1980s. With its population of 24 million mostly ethnic Chinese citizens, Taiwan has become a vibrant democracy and hi-tech giant that is one of America’s closest trading partners.
So the question remains: How to reconcile Taiwan’s desire to remain an independent democracy with Beijing’s insistence that it will eventually reclaim the island? The answer has been for Taiwan and the United States — with Chinese acquiescence — to maintain a careful ambiguity over the island’s status.
But all that could now change.
The key has been a diplomatic formula known as the “One China” policy. In 1992, Beijing and Taipei agreed there was only “One China” encompassing the mainland and Taiwan — but disagreed over what the term meant.
However, the principle signified that Taiwan would not declare independence. As the years passed, though, the Taiwanese people, especially the youth who have grown up and been educated in a democracy, have begun to view themselves as wholly Taiwanese.
President Tsai, elected last year, leads the Democratic Progressive party, which considers Taiwan an independent country. In response to her victory, Beijing froze ongoing contacts with Taiwan and sharply reduced the lucrative flow of mainland tourists to Taiwan.
However, Tsai has stressed that she will maintain the status quo in relations with China and officials told me the call did not represent a policy shift. But Beijing is already retaliating, sending an aircraft carrier to conduct drills near the island, and making efforts to peel off some of the 21 small countries that recognize Taiwan.
The hope was that a call would lead to closer trade ties with the United States, including sales of defensive weapons or military technology that Taiwan needs but Washington has been reluctant to provide.
Vincent Chao, a spokesman for the Taiwanese National Security Council, said the expectation was that news of the call would be kept low key. “‘One China’ was not in the phone call,” he told me. Taiwanese officials communicated with the Trump team on media strategy and were asked to send a draft press release. “Before we heard back, a press release went out from their side, and then came the tweets.”
Those follow-up tweets blared the news of Trump’s call to the “President of Taiwan,” implying that he recognized her as a sovereign leader, and blasted China’s policy on trade, North Korea and the South China Sea. Then he went on Fox News and asked why he should adhere to the “One China” policy unless China made concessions on those issues.
“China was more upset about the raising of the ‘One China’ principle than the phone call,” said legislator Lo. “We were really surprised the president-elect himself would tweet. If big powers are going to engage in confrontation we have to be careful not to get entangled. Sometimes we become the scapegoat. It is easier for China to hit at us than at the Trump administration.”
If the president-elect really wants to warm relations with Taiwan, he shouldn’t make the island part of a frontal attack on China, with the implication that Washington will support Taiwanese independence. That could provoke a Chinese military retaliation against Taiwan that nobody wants.
TRUDY RUBIN is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.