President-elect Donald Trump took a phone call last week and created an international incident before even being sworn into office.
He spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for ten minutes, which must seem entirely innocuous to almost everyone in America, but professional diplomats went immediately into pearl-clutching mode. And they weren’t the only ones. Several US military generals—including reliably conservative generals—made stern-faced appearances on CNN and said the call was incredibly dangerous.
Millions of Americans heard that and said, really? What on earth is the problem?
China is a bully. That’s the problem.
Even speaking to the government of Taiwan violates Beijing’s so-called “One China Policy,” which the United States grudgingly accepted under Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
Two countries call themselves China—the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is the Republic of China. The mainland is the People’s Republic. Mainland China will not allow any country on earth to maintain diplomatic relations with both.
So when Trump spoke to Tsai, he kicked over the checkerboard.
“Uh oh,” former Bush administration White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted. “I wasn't even allowed to refer to the gvt ‘of’ Taiwan. (I could say gvt ‘on’ Taiwan.) China will go nuts.”
China isn’t going nuts, exactly, but Beijing sure isn’t happy. The Chinese government says the episode highlights Trump’s inexperience and diplomatic bufoonery. Plenty of people in Washington said the same thing over the weekend.
Trump himself tried to blow it off as if it were one big nothing-to-see, as if he simply picked up the phone when it rang. A telemarketer could have been on the line for all he knew, but surprise. It was the woman who isn’t supposed to exist. “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” he tweeted.
It could have happened that way. The unusual nature of Trump’s transition gave him some plausible deniability. When Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wanted to call Trump to say congratulations, he had no idea how to contact the president-elect. Professional golfer and Trump pal Greg Norman gave Trump’s private cell phone number to Turnbull.
That was way out of the ordinary, but it happened. When Turnbull called, Trump just picked up and said, “hello.” Anyone in the world could have been on the other end of the line, including the president of Taiwan.
That’s not what happened with Tsai, though. According to her office, both sides arranged the call in advance.
It wasn’t a blunder, then. It was on purpose.
The Washington Post reports that the call “was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the Republican presidential nominee, according to people involved in or briefed on the talks.”
Why are we only hearing about this days later? Perhaps the Trump team wanted the Chinese to think it was a blunder at first to give them time to slowly come to grips with the fact that there’s a new sheriff in town.
Is poking China on Taiwan a good idea?
I have no idea. It depends on what happens. As Ross Douthat put it on Twitter, “it’s all fine until there’s an actual crisis and then it won’t be fine.”
China might suck it up and move on. China also might be a gigantic pain in the ass about it.
Nobody knows. The Chinese probably don’t even know. They’ll have to hold emergency meetings and yell at each other in private first.
They might get over it. The United States trades with Taiwan. The United States sells weapons to Taiwan. In 1996, President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait when China tested missiles in nearby waters.
China’s rulers hate these things and wish we would stop, but they accept them. They’ll accept Trump’s phone call too because by itself it’s not a big deal, and in any case it’s a done deal.
They might even accept a new American policy after they spend a respectable amout of time wailing and gnashing their teeth, but they could make the world a much more difficult place for us if they don’t.
The US needs China’s help to keep nuclear-armed North Korea boxed in. China can veto UN Security Council sanctions against Iran or anyone else. China might strong-arm other East Asian countries into cooling their relations with the United States and moving closer to Beijing, especially now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which excluded China) is dead in the water.
I’d love to see the United States recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation as long as the Pacific Rim doesn’t blow up. For one thing, Taiwan is a sovereign nation whether or not Beijing and Washington say so. It has its own democratically elected government and its own institutions. It makes its own domestic, foreign and trade policies with zero input from the Chinese Communist Party. Its citizens have their own passports with "Republic of China" written across the top. Recognizing these facts is just an acknowledgement of reality. Ari Fleischer might not have been allowed to refer to the government of Taiwan, but those of us who don’t work for the government are free to recognize, talk about and write about reality.
“Reality,” science-fiction writer Phillip K. Dick once wrote, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”
Also: come on. China is autocratic. Taiwan is democratic. China is the big China. Taiwan is the good China.
“We have had a status quo of sorts in the Taiwan Strait that has kept the peace,” says Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, “but it recently has not looked all that durable, nor was it very agreeable to most citizens of democratic Taiwan.”
It’s not very agreeable to lots of Americans either, including my wife. She used to live there.
Beijing wants to impose its rule on Taiwan like it has in Hong Kong, Tibet and East Turkestan. If any half-way moral and sensible person had their way, the reverse would happen and Taiwan would export its democratic Chinese model to its 900-pound cousin. That’s probably what will eventually happen anyway, even if China militarily conquers Taiwan in the meantime.
We all have to deal with the world as it is, but sacrificing Taiwan to the wolves is outrageous. Taiwan had a “permanent” seat on the United Nations Security Council until Richard Nixon, neverminding tens of millions of corpses, gave it to Mao Zedong. Nixon told Taiwan that the US was engaging instead with the mainland Chinese “not because we love them. But because they’re there.” Fine. It may have been necessary, but it was a nasty business. A bully got its way for four decades not because it is right but because it is bigger. Professional diplomats may have to bite their tongues but the rest of us don’t.
“Until recently,” Isaac Stone Fish writes in The Atlantic, “Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats regularly traveled the world fighting for diplomatic recognition, while China sat quietly in the UNSC seat it took from Taiwan in October 1971, using its veto largely as a cudgel against countries that recognized Taiwan. Now it doesn’t need to; the fight is over, and Taiwan lost. South Africa, the last major country to recognize Taiwan, switched over in 1998. Taiwan lost Gambia, the smallest nation in continental Africa, in March 2016, dropping the number of states that recognize it to 22, the most important of which are the Vatican and Nicaragua.”
Plenty of officials in both the Democratic and Republican parties would go along with a policy change, including many who spent the last several days wigging out about the Trump team’s unconventional methods. Whether we like it or not, though, the unconventional is about to become the new normal, not just in the United States but everywhere populist political parties take power, from the United Kingdom, Poland and Hungary to the Philippines and possibly France.
The entire world is going to have to get used to it.