US President Donald Trump, averse to bureaucratic protocol, prefers to deal directly with foreign leaders when he believes that vital US national interests are at stake. He has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — all dictators whose regimes are avowed adversaries of the US.
However, none of those meetings caused as much controversy as the then-president-elect’s brief telephone conversation in 2016 with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
After the Beijing and US foreign policy establishments accused him of violating the “one China” policy, Trump said that he could speak with anyone he chooses and did not think that the policy was sacrosanct.
However, he softened his defiance by saying that he would notify Xi of any future contact with Taiwan’s president.
Given significant developments across the Taiwan Strait over the ensuing two years, it is time for a more substantive conversation between the two presidents.
Like Trump’s questioning of conventional wisdom on the US-China relationship, Tsai refused to accept Beijing’s belief that Taiwan is part of China. The Xi regime has been working to undermine her government ever since.
During Taiwan’s elections in November last year, China conducted extensive influence operations that, along with several domestic issues, led to major electoral defeats for the Democratic Progressive Party.
Emboldened by its success, Beijing has broadened and deepened its interference in Taiwan’s democratic institutions, using techniques that it also applies to meddle in the US’ democracy.
China has stepped up its diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan. Through intimidation and bribery, it has forced four small developing nations to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei.
Beijing has dramatically increased its anti-Taiwan military operations, deploying ships and airplanes around the nation. Xi has also escalated his hostile rhetoric with his New Year’s greeting: Accept Chinese Communist Party rule or be attacked.
All these war-by-other-means tactics have alarmed Taipei and Washington. Taiwan has requested modern fighter aircraft and appealed to the international community to support it as a frontline state in the global struggle against authoritarianism.
The world ignored the fate of Czechoslovakia before the Nazi onslaught that brought on World War II. Deterrence lesson learned, the West stood with West Berlin and the Cold War did not erupt into World War III.
The Trump administration in January last year published its National Defense Strategy identifying China and Russia as “revisionist powers” seeking to upend the world order. The strategy frequently refers to Taiwan’s role as a target of — and bulwark against — Chinese expansionism.
The Trump administration has taken a series of actions to demonstrate its commitment to cross-strait stability, approving arms sales and sending more US Navy warships through the Taiwan Strait in a year than all the transits of the past several administrations combined.
With economic security increasingly essential to national security, Taipei and Washington need to hold serious trade talks.
Recognizing that Taiwan shares US values and strategic interests, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act to encourage more frequent and higher-ranking reciprocal visits by Taiwanese and US government officials.
To serve that end, a group of US senators urged the speaker of the US House of Representatives to invite Taiwan’s president to address a joint meeting of Congress in the tradition of then-British prime minister Winston Churchill’s speech to Congress in World War II, then-Czech president Vaclav Havel’s during the Cold War and then-South African president Nelson Mandela’s in his struggle against apartheid. Should the address be arranged, a White House visit would be a natural accompaniment.
In the area of human rights, Taiwan and the US are clearly working in parallel. The US Department of State last year established an International Religious Freedom Fund to address, among other causes, the culturally genocidal treatment of the Uighurs in Chinese concentration camps.
As it always does during times of suffering and need, Taipei immediately contributed US$1 million to the fund. Two weeks ago, Taiwan hosted a regional conference on religious freedom at which Tsai pledged her nation’s commitment to the cause.
It remains to be seen whether the evil perpetrated in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs sinks to the depravity of Nazi concentration camps or today’s North Korean detention camps, but it is shameful enough to disqualify communist China as a normal, modern state.
Trump has tended to treat Xi, Putin and Kim as fellow human beings with whom he can have normal relations, even as his administration increasingly treats their regimes as far outside international norms.
It is time for Taiwan to be treated as the normal country it is — one of the top dozen or so world economies, larger in population than 142 of 194 countries and ranked by Freedom House as one of the globe’s freest.
Government-to-government communication is critical for stability in East Asia. In addition to Xi and Kim, Trump has met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Almost all have met with each other. No one has met with Tsai; Trump is the only one to even talk with her. Now he needs to be the first to meet with her.
As for Trump’s commitment to notify Xi before talking with Taiwan’s president again, he can certainly inform him — just this once — of what he is doing, and then do it.
Xi can hardly walk away from trade talks and bring on the higher tariffs Trump has held in abeyance. If Beijing threatens to undermine North Korea sanctions even more than it already is, secondary sanctions on China are already overdue.
The US has the cards to ensure stability in East Asia. It should play them.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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