On Taiwan, Trump Made The Right Call

Calling Taiwan’s president was unconventional, but it was also smart.

Image: The Wall Street Journal, “Trump’s Taiwan Play,” Dec. 4, 2016.

There has been much hyperventilating about the phone call between Donald Trump and Taiwan’s leader. Pundits worked themselves into a lather, variously belittling it as a blunder that demonstrates his inexperience or denouncing it as an irresponsible provocation. In truth it was neither. It appears that Trump knew exactly what he was doing. More than that, it was a smart move.

The call was weeks in the making and Trump was fully briefed on its implications. A call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen had been among the calls with foreign leaders planned by Trump’s team since just after the election. “Very early on, Taiwan was on that list,” Stephen Yates, an expert on China and Taiwan and a national security official in the presidency of George W. Bush told the Washington Post. “Once the call was scheduled, I was told that there was a briefing for President-elect Trump. They knew that there would be reaction and potential blowback.”

Trump was well aware of the implications of the call and had good reason for taking it. In recent years, China has dramatically increased military spending, stepped up cyberattacks, and aggressively expanded its territorial claims in the South China Sea that could give it the ability to control vital international shipping routes. The generally timid response from the current administration to China has emboldened Beijing to strengthen its strategic position. A ratching up of the pressure on China was overdue.

Conservative foreign policy experts, many of whom have been critical of Trump in the past, cheered the move. Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter to George W. Bush praised the call in a Washington Post column yesterday, writing that “It was a deliberate move — and a brilliant one at that.”

Trump’s team has downplayed the call as merely a courtesy, nothing more. As Vice President-elect Mike Pence said Sunday on ABC’s This Week, “He took the call, accepted her congratulations and good wishes and it was precisely that.”

Yet, the message to China was clear. The President of the United States will not allow a foreign leader to dictate to whom he will speak, a point Trump made clear in a series of tweets Sunday.

Taiwan has long been a central issue in the U.S.-China relationship. China views Taiwan as a rebellious province and strenuously opposes formal independence. As a condition of establishing diplomatic relations with China in 1979, the U.S. agreed to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan and embrace a “one China” policy that recognizes only the communist government in Beijing as the legitimate government of China. It was a bargain rooted in the geopolitics of the Cold War struck at a time when the U.S. sought closer ties with China as a check on Soviet influence in Asia.

While the Soviet Union is long gone, the “one China” policy remains a central foundation of the US-China diplomatic relationship. In practice, although the U.S. does not officially have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it maintains a close bilateral relationship that is similar in all but name. There is no embassy in Tapai, but the American Institute in Taiwan serves effectively the same purpose. Both sides accept this charade in the interest of maintaining the relationship.

The U.S. also provides extensive security assistance to Taiwan, including sales of American-made weapons, intended to deter China from retaking it by force. Like many Presidents before him, President Obama has approved weapons sales to Taiwan. A $1.8 billion dollar weapons sale he approved to Taiwan just last year also provoked China’s ire. Curiously, that did not stir the alarm among the punditry that Trump’s acceptance of the phone call with President Tsai did.

It is fair to read the call as a subtle shot across China’s bow and a signal that the U.S. will not allow China to dictate the terms of the relationship between the two countries. It should not, however, be read as an indication the Trump administration seeks a hostile relationship with China. Nor that Trump intends to scuttle the “one China” policy.

That did not stop some commentators from assuming the worst. “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” former Asia director at the White House national security council, Evan Medeiros, breathlessly warned in an interview with the Financial Times.

Despite the dire predictions, China seemed to take it in stride. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi downplayed the call, casting the blame on Taiwan, calling it a “small trick” by Taiwan that “cannot change the ‘One China’ structure already formed by the international community.”

The relatively muted response to Trump’s call is an indication that Beijing is taking the long view of the relationship with the new American President. China’s leaders see Trump’s election as a potentially positive development and are hopeful about the prospects of his prospects as President. Trump, they reckon, will be a pragmatic dealmaker who is less concerned than past Presidents about contentious internal issues like China’s human rights record.

The Obama Administration has tended to view Taiwan primarily through the lens of the U.S.-China relationship. Fearful of upsetting Beijing, America’s relationship with Taiwan has often been sacrificed in the interest of harmony. While the U.S.-China relationship is important, China is a strategic competitor whose interests are often in conflict with those of the U.S.

High-level engagement between the U.S. and Taiwan is in America’s interest. Taiwan is among Asia’s most vibrant democracies, an important trading partner, and long-time ally. Maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Straits is important to America’s interest in a stable balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan’s strategic location limits Chinese naval access to the open sea, an effective check on the ability of China to project power beyond its shores, and serves as a buffer between China and its old rival Japan, whom the U.S. has obligations to defend.

Still, America also has an interest in a cooperative relationship with Beijing. China’s participation is crucial to efforts to deal with the growing threat of North Korea. Given the substantial trading relationship between the U.S. and China, cooperation on economic issues is critical. While a harder line with China is needed, Trump will need to keep this in mind as he rebalances America’s priorities in the Asia-Pacific region.

The jury is still out on precisely how Trump will approach the world as President. It’s a fair criticism that his foreign policy views during the campaign were at times muddled. Even new Presidents that can draw on vast experience gained from long political careers face a steep learning curve. Trump’s foreign policy experience is limited, but so is the baggage of conventional thinking that comes with it. That can sometimes be an asset.

Trump’s call with Taiwan’s president was unconventional, yes. But, it was also smart. As Trump confronts the realities of the Oval Office, a picture is emerging of an instinct to avoid unnecessary military confrontation balanced by a determination not to be cowed by adversaries either. That’s a pretty good approach that has worked well for Presidents of both parties since Theodore Roosevelt walked softly carrying a big stick.

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