To the consternation of many, Donald Trump has spoken by telephone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Reportedly, this is the first direct communication between the leader of the United States and the leader of Taiwan since 1979.
Team Trump says not much should be made of this. Taiwan’s president called to congratulate the president-elect and Trump accepted the call. That’s all.
However, this Washington Post article contends that the call was “planned weeks ahead by staffers and Taiwan specialists on both sides.”
For once, I believe the Post. Moves as symbolically powerful and potential significant as this one don’t just happen. As China expert Gordon Chang told the Post, it doesn’t make sense that Tsai out of the blue would call Donald Trump. She is not a risk-taker, and it would be hugely embarrassing to her if Trump didn’t take the call and word of the snub got out.
Moreover, given the views Trump has expressed about China, it makes sense that he would signal a possible shift in America’s approach to China. The phone conversation served that purpose. So did Trump’s response to China’s criticism. Trump tweeted:
Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!
The real questions here are: (1) should Trump shift American policy towards China and (2) should closer relations with Taiwan by part of the shift. I’m no expert on China, but I think there’s a good case for answering both questions in the affirmative.
As Trump’s tweet indicates, current U.S. policy towards China seems less than optimal. China’s shabby treatment of President Obama during his recent visit should have enabled even liberals to see that there’s a problem. So too, the Phillippine president’s tilt towards China.
As for Taiwan, Trump’s receptiveness to its president drew favorable comments from both ends of the Republican spectrum. Jon Huntsman, the liberal former ambassador to China, said: “We ought to be giving (Taiwan) a little more space.”
Sen. Tom Cotton was more emphatic. He said:
I commend President-elect Trump for his conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen, which reaffirms our commitment to the only democracy on Chinese soil. I have met with President Tsai twice and I’m confident she expressed to the president-elect the same desire for closer relations with the United States.
Taiwan is an important U.S. trading partner, a potentially important strategic partner, and (as Cotton says) a beacon of democracy in the region. I don’t see why the U.S. president shouldn’t talk to its president just because an increasingly hostile China wishes he wouldn’t.
The broader question of just how to reorient our China policy is a complex one. It would be foolish to minimize the dangers inherent in such a reorientation, but equally foolish to ignore the dangers of our present course.
It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump and the foreign policy team he selects will make the right calls on China. But the pre-arranged call from President Tsai was not a wrong one.