On Friday, December 2, President-elect Donald Trump talked on the phone to several leaders around the world, including Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected Taiwan’s first female president in January of this year.
In a press release, the office of the President-elect announced that the two exchanged congratulations and “noted the close economic, political, and security ties exists between Taiwan and the United States.” A normal day in the busy schedule of the newly-elected President, one would think.
However, immediately U.S. news media came out with disquieting headlines that the call was “controversial,” “raised red flags,” “a likely affront to China,” “a major break with decades of US policy on China” and “Trump risks China rift,” while former NSC official Evan Medeiros opined: “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions.”
What is at issue here? The problem is that the United States at the present time does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This is an anomaly stemming from the Cold War period from the 1950s through 1970s, when both Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei and Mao Tse-tung in Beijing claimed to be the legitimate government of China.
Chiang’s Kuomintang had ruled China from the 1920s through 1949, but had been defeated by Mao Tse-tung’s Communists, and fled to Taiwan, where he established a rather 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 Nixon and Kissinger engineered their opening to Beijing, which led to formal normalization of relations under President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
In that move, the U.S. recognized Beijing as the government of China, but — under the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979 — maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan, stating that Taiwan’s status was “undetermined” (in accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty under which Japan gave up sovereignty over Taiwan) and should be determined peacefully.
Fast forward to the present: in the intervening years Taiwan made a momentous transition to democracy, culminating in the election of native Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in January of this year.
Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party chafe at the dated restrictions imposed by the international community on relations with their country. In particular, many young people in Taiwan feel that their country is a vibrant democracy, should be treated more equally by other nations and should be welcomed in international organizations.
Against that background, President-elect Trump's phone call is significant because it does indicate that he is bound less by anachronistic conventions and restrictions on relations with Taiwan, and is signaling a broader change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
It would indeed be good if he would start a process towards more normal relations with Taiwan, treating it like our other friends and allies. This would actually also be good for China, as it could then move away from its outdated claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, and relax its rigid policy to try 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 high on the radar screen of a number of key aides to Trump, who will fill positions in the new administration, and who has spoken out in favor of significant improvement of relations with Taiwan.
The call thus represents a major breakthrough, as it is the first high-level contact between the two countries since 1979. If Mr. Trump would borrow a theme from President Obama’s 2008 presidential race, this would be “change we can believe in.”
Gerrit van der Wees is former editor of Taiwan Communiqué, a publication in Washington D.C.