US president-elect Donald Trump on Friday talked by telephone with several international leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who was in January elected Taiwan’s first female president.
Trump’s office said in a news release that the two exchanged congratulations and “noted the close economic, political and security ties between Taiwan and the United States.” A normal day in the busy schedule of a newly elected president.
However, US media immediately came out with alarmist headlines saying that the call was “controversial,” “raised red flags,” was “a likely affront to China” and “a major break with decades of US policy on China” and that “Trump risks China rift,” while former US National Security Council official Evan Medeiros said: “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions.”
What is the issue? The problem is that the US does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This is an anomaly stemming from the Cold War, when both Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taipei and Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing claimed to be the legitimate government of China.
The KMT had ruled China from the 1920s through 1949, but had been defeated by the CCP and fled to Taiwan, where Chiang established an authoritarian regime, which was ironically called “Free China.”
In the 1960s, international support for Chiang’s claim to rule China eroded, and in the early 1970s, then-US president Richard Nixon and then-US secretary of state Henry Kissinger engineered their opening to Beijing, which led to formal normalization of relations under then-US president Jimmy Carter in 1979.
The US recognized Beijing as the government of China, but — under the Taiwan Relations Act passed by US Congress in 1979 — maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan, saying that Taiwan’s status was “undetermined” — in accordance with the Treaty of San Francisco, under which Japan gave up sovereignty over Taiwan — and should be determined peacefully.
Fast forward to the present: In the intervening years, Taiwan has made a momentous transition to democracy, culminating in the election of Taiwan-born Tsai in January. Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party chafe at dated restrictions imposed by the international community on relations with the nation. In particular, many young Taiwanese, who feel that their nation is a vibrant democracy, should be treated more equally by other nations and should be welcomed in international organizations.
Against that background, Trump’s telephone call is significant, because it indicates that he is less bound by anachronistic conventions and restrictions on relations with Taiwan, and is signaling a broader change in US policy toward Taiwan. It would indeed be good if he would start a process toward more normal relations with Taiwan, treating it like Washington’s other friends and allies. This would actually also be good for China, as it could then move away from its untenable claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, relax its rigid policy of trying to isolate Taiwan internationally and thus significantly reduce tensions in the region.
It is too early to say how and how fast this will evolve, but Taiwan is certainly of high importance on the radar screen of a number of key Trump aides, who are to fill positions in the new administration and have spoken in favor of a significant improvement in relations with Taiwan. As such, the call represents a major breakthrough, as it is the first high-level contact between the two nations since 1979. If Trump would borrow a theme from US President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, it would be “change we can believe in.”
Gerrit van der Wees is former editor of Taiwan Communique, a Washington-based publication.
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