The implications of Trump’s call with Taiwan

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In case you’ve been blissfully living under a rock, it’s been all over the news that Trump and Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wei, spoke on the phone and some people are freaking out while others are saying it’s not a big deal. So, what’s the truth and what does this mean, if anything?

First of all, for a bit of background, China has what it calls a One-China policy. This means entities they consider part of China – Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. – are all part of one, indivisible China. No discussion. Most Taiwanese believe differently, since they have a different currency, government, military, and language. (Mandarin is taught in schools, but the Taiwanese dialect is widely used.) Before I go further, I do want to say that I have family in Taiwan, and believe that Taiwan is a separate nation. It obviously colors how I view this situation.

The relationships between the U.S., China, and Taiwan are complicated. President Tsai, Taiwan’s first woman President, won a landslide victory in part due to Taiwan’s rising pro-independence sentiment. She hasn’t signed the 1992 Consensus that affirms that Taiwan is part of China, a document that the previous party in power supported. This has resulted in China severing diplomatic communication with Taipei. Yet China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner and is also a large contributor to tourism. It’s a case of can’t live with them, can’t live without them. It’s also a case of trying to figure out how much provocation China will tolerate.

Before Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 and Carter’s 1979 recognition of China, the U.S. firmly backed Taiwan in opposition to the Communist country. Since 1979, things are kind of the opposite, with a weird, hazy policy to not formally recognize Taiwan as a country, but to sell them arms and promise protection. There’s been no formal diplomatic communication between Taiwan and the U.S. for about 40 years.

This has not sat well with much of the GOP, and while it hasn’t been the top of conservative concerns, the current GOP platform pledges support to Taiwan and uses excoriating language to criticize China.

So when Kellyanne Conway said that the phone call between Trump and Tsai was no big deal and “he [was] merely taking phone calls,” she belies a lot of the effort that went into making the phone call happen, including months of work by former Senator Bob Dole. Trump has responded with the usual: a tweet that has more heat than light. Tsai herself has said the call was simply to congratulate Trump on his win and no major policy changes would occur because of it. The word from Beijing is that Trump’s a foreign relations neophyte who made an error, and the call was a “petty gesture” by Taiwan. There’s more fun implications in The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, about repercussions for U.S.-China relations should the One-China policy be ignored and punishment for Tsai’s administration should it “cross the red line.”

While China’s pretty pissed, they could be doing a lot worse than angry newspaper articles. It’s not like the most terrifying game of “I’m not touching you” that occurred in 1996 when they didn’t like a pro-independence Taiwanese presidential candidate and responded with military exercises in the Taiwan Strait complete with missile launches. Things could get ugly, but it appears that China, like everyone else, is waiting to see what it is that Trump wants and how he’ll act in the future.

Okay, that’s a lot of information, but it doesn’t seem to move us towards a conclusion. For one, those in Trump’s corner aren’t giving clear answers. Conway tells everyone to stop being hysterical and it isn’t a big deal, but other conservatives say that it’s refreshing that Trump is taking a stance against China and no one’s rushing to tell them otherwise. Part of the frustration is that delicate diplomatic relations have been turned on their head but we don’t know why.

If this were a deliberate action to stand up to China, you’d think Trump would own it and soak in the praise from supporters, but he hasn’t. All the planning necessary to make the call happen indicates it was no accident, so why is it being downplayed? Diplomatically, it doesn’t make sense to put time and effort into breaking decades of protocol and then say significant policy changes aren’t on the table, nothing to see here.

I suspect that the phone call wasn’t a diplomatic move, an offensive gesture against China, or a gaffe. Pro-Taiwan politicians may have been able to get some of the statement they wanted, but my guess is that Trump was looking out for personal interests because nothing else makes sense. He doesn’t seem to care much about whether or not a country has human rights abuses or is particularly democratic. See his pleasant rapport with Filipino President Rodrigo Duerte, who encourages murder in the streets instead of trials, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who severely limits speech, religion, assembly, and more.

What Trump does have are hotel interests in the Philippines and Taiwan, and funding from Kazhakstan for several of his projects. With his three oldest children in charge of the Trump Organization and serving on his presidential transitional team, and with no tax returns to see where his money comes from or what kind of conflicts of interest he may have, it may be the case that Donald Trump is simply doing what he is always trying to do: make money.

Perhaps that explains China’s relatively subdued response. U.S.-China-Taiwan relations are difficult and frustrating. Convincing Donald Trump to make a deal is easy.

It’s true that the Trump Organization has lots of projects in several countries. It’s also true that the Trump Organization’s interest in Taiwan is not set in stone, and one hotel hardly translates into a river of money. For me, it would be a pleasant surprise if Trump truly wants to normalize communication Taiwan. But until he or his team provides some clarity, the signs seem to point towards self-interest.

Last modified: December 9, 2016