The recent 10-minute telephone conversation between US President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has sparked much speculation about a possible shift in US policy vis-à-vis the self-ruled democratic island nation, and the consequences of such a move on the all-important Sino-American relationship.
At this juncture it is difficult to determine to what extent the phone conversation (and subsequent tweets by Trump) portend a change in the direction of Washington’s relationship with Taiwan, with which it has had close (albeit unofficial) diplomatic relations since 1979. It's clear the call was a boost for President Tsai’s image domestically and provided some reassurance (premature, perhaps) that President Trump will not include Taiwan in a 'grand bargain' with China. We can also be certain Trump did not take the call on a whim or due to ignorance of international relations: the potential repercussions are simply too serious.
The big question immediately after the call was made was how Beijing, which loathes any signs of interference in what it regards as its internal affairs, will react. So far, China’s reaction has been relatively muted, despite international media doing much to hype the prospect of a great power clash over Taiwan.
Notwithstanding the precedent set by the call, its significance in terms of the future of the triangular US-Taiwan-China relationship should not be overstated. What matters (and arguably why Beijing’s response to the call hasn’t been more vitriolic) is what President Trump does once he enters office in January. And given historical precedent, it is likely that his administration will aim for stability. In the Taiwan Strait, this would mean maintaining the longstanding 'status quo' policy of no de jure independence for Taiwan and no unification under coercive terms.
Given that Beijing regards Taiwan as a 'core interest' and is ostensibly more invested in unification than Washington is in Taiwan’s defense, the Trump Administration is unlikely to drastically alter decades of policy in the Taiwan Strait and thereby risk sparking competition with a rising and increasingly assertive China. Not even Trump will risk that.
Nevertheless, Trump’s advisers (some of whom are ideologically close to Taiwan) are certainly aware that Beijing has been chipping away at the status quo, particularly since Tsai’s election in January this year. It has accomplished this by, among other things, shutting down most official contact with Taipei and intensifying its efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally, as occurred recently when Taiwan was denied access to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) summit in Montreal and the Interpol general assembly in Indonesia last month, due to pressure from Beijing. In both instances, Taiwan’s failure to participate occurred despite sustained behind-the-scenes efforts by US officials to ensure that Taiwanese officials could attend. In some ways, we can regard the telephone conversation as retaliation for Beijing’s recent efforts to contain Taiwan against US wishes.
While we should not expect any major departure from longstanding policy (such as the establishment of official diplomatic ties between Washington and Taipei), the Trump administration will have every advantage in ensuring that Taiwan, a key ally in the Asia-Pacific, does not fear abandonment and receives the support it needs to continue existing under the status quo. Taiwan is simply too important a link in the 'first island chain' that hems in China from the West Pacific for Washington to allow it to despair and surrender to Beijing or, conversely, to engage in dangerous adventurism should it feel cornered. This above all was likely the reason why Trump’s advisers encouraged the call.
For the time being, it's unlikely that China will immediately adopt punitive measures against the US over the phone call. The leadership in Beijing knows it would gain nothing from alienating President Trump from the outset, and ultimately the relationship with the US is far too important, and the future too uncertain, for Beijing to react harshly to what amounted to little more than a simple, symbolic phone call. Unless Trump starts drawing red lines around Taiwan, Beijing will not escalate in any significant manner.
China is likelier to retaliate against Taiwan itself. In fact, Beijing’s response to date has focused less on Trump than on Tsai, whom it accused of playing 'little tricks'. The domestic benefits Tsai garnered from the conversation with Trump could very well be offset by Beijing’s next move, should it decide to retaliate. In other words, this endeavour could come back to haunt the Taiwanese president if it compels Beijing to punish Taiwan, counterbalance early signs of US-Taiwan rapprochement, and blame the crisis (as it has skillfully blamed every crisis before using the many propaganda and political warfare tools it has at its disposal) on the Taiwanese leadership's adventurism.
As a result of the international attention that the call has received, Beijing may feel it has license to take 'defensive' action against Taiwan and, indirectly, against the US. This could translate into further moves to prevent the island-nation’s diplomats from participating at international institutions and a resumption of efforts (frozen under President Tsai’s more China-friendly predecessor) to steal Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies. Chief among them, and perhaps of the highest symbolic value, is the Vatican, with which China has been rapidly improving relations in recent months. Depending on how alarmed Beijing is at signs of possible US rapprochement with Taiwan, China could intensify its military exercises in the region, particularly those simulating an assault on Taiwan, or redouble efforts to win over US allies in the region, as it has done with some success recently with Malaysia and the Philippines.
While punishing Taiwan may be Beijing’s proximate aim, China may also hope to convince the Trump administration that closer engagement with Taipei isn’t in their interests, as this will inevitably lead to renewed instability in the Taiwan Strait. Unless Trump indeed is a completely different president, such threats, particularly at a time of sagging American support for US policing action abroad, could very well succeed in forcing him to move closer to his predecessors’ more careful Taiwan policy, which the establishment continues to regard as the safest (if not most 'responsible') way to defend US interests.
Photo: Getty Images/Craig Ferguson