As some of you may be aware, President-elect Donald Trump spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on December 3, the first communication between top officials from the US and Taiwan for nearly four decades. Of course, many were immediately troubled by this news, particularly the People’s Republic of China (PRoC), due to its insistence that Taiwan is not, in fact, a state, but a dissident province of China.
*please note that PRoC = China, RoC = Taiwan
Why is this? Let’s (briefly) go over the history.
On and off starting from the Shanghai massacre of 1927 to its conclusion in 1950, a bitter civil war was fought in China between the Kuomintang (KMT) under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong. Despite the other fascinating and vitally important events that happened during the civil war, the most important detail is that (spoiler alert!) the CCP won the war to form the PRoC, while the KMT fled to Taiwan to form the “Republic of China” (RoC).
At this point, it is interesting to note that the US and the KMT were fairly close allies, with the RoC occupying a permanent seat on the UN Security Council as a representative for all of China, despite the fact that in reality, it had no bearing on any of mainland China. Since 1950, the PRoC and the RoC have claimed sovereignty over the other’s territory as China’s rightful ruler; until his death in 1976, Chiang claimed that he would one day reconquer mainland China, and even to this day there are those in Taiwan who claim sovereignty of mainland China, although calls for international recognition of its sovereignty have become more common.
On the other hand, the PRoC’s stance has always been unequivocal: Taiwan is an errant province of China, and it has relentlessly pursued this in its foreign policy. In 1971, due in large part to US President Richard Nixon’s efforts, the PRoC replaced the RoC on the UN Security Council. By 1979, US President Jimmy Carter recognized the PRoC’s “One China Policy” accepting that Taiwan was indeed a part of China, and accordingly established formal diplomatic ties with the PRoC and ended ties with the RoC. Even so, the US Congress soon after passed the “Taiwan Relations Act” which maintained unofficial ties with the RoC, a vital note to keep in mind.
But let us return to the present (or close to it).
People (and the PRoC) are not mad at Donald Trump because his telephone conversation represents some “renewal” of ties with Taiwan, due to the fact that US-Taiwan relations had already been unofficially established. Rather, everyone is up in arms because Trump has made the grievous error of officially recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty by talking to their president. More importantly, they worry about the reaction of the PRoC, which has promised to cut off ties with any state that officially recognizes the RoC, a worrying possibility (although highly unlikely) in the face of US-China relations. The situation sounds as one between a group of gossipy students.
*scene opens with Taiwan walking into the cafeteria where China and America are setting up a game of battleship, but neither is willing to make the first move. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia watch intently.*
China: OMG, do not talk to Taiwan, I swear America, I’ll kill you if you do.
America: Lol, you know it’s all good China. Even though I had a thing with Taiwan a while back, I don’t even think of it as a state anymore. I don’t even recognize it anymore. (But on the down-low I totally do work with Taiwan.)
*Taiwan seeing America and China*
Taiwan: Hey America! Are you ever going to acknowledge that I’m a sovereign state that deserves to be recognized, considering that we’re like… trading partners and also like, really militarily close, as well as the fact that I possess all the features of a sovereign state, except for the recognition of my international peers?
China: SAY NOTHING! Taiwan needs to finally accept that I’m the ruler here and that it needs to fall in line with what I say.
Taiwan: China, literally I was here before you, and just because you’re all rich and powerful now, and scare basically everyone doesn’t mean that you can intimidate me like this.
*America is silent, but all of a sudden coughs up a conscientious pile of mashed potatoes*
Pile of mashed potatoes: Taiwan, you’re fantastic! With you by my side, we’re going to win the big league for the next (four?) years.
China, Taiwan, and the United States after staring incredulously at this lumpy pile, all in unison, but for very different reasons: WHAT? This is unprecedented…
As difficult as it is to say, I don’t believe that Donald Trump’s call with Taiwan is all bad news. In essence, what this boils down to in an extremely general sense is a good old-fashioned case of realpolitik vs. ideology.
On the plane of ideals, if Taiwan wishes to be termed a sovereign state, it deserves to be so named. It is able to administer its own domestic affairs and conduct itself internationally far more strongly than many other recognized sovereign states, like Libya, Somalia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name just a few.
In contrast, by using the oh-so-cold logic of the world, the US should either abandon Taiwan to China, or maintain its “side” relationship with the RoC, refusing to recognize it as a sovereign state, while continuing to deal with it (although Taiwan certainly won’t be entirely satisfied with this arrangement).
And although a referendum held in Taiwan in 1992 seemingly affirmed the One China Policy, it also differed in its interpretation of the legitimate political body to rule China (the KMT or CCP). Thus, in many ways, Taiwan is still in the same situation it’s been in for so many years. Recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty, if not independence, is the move that the international community should have made many years ago. Personally, I believe that the failure to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state is an affront to the ideals of self-determination and sovereignty that we claim to hold so dear, ideals that embolden people across the globe to represent their political communities in pursuit of a better tomorrow.
Some sources claim that this political move has been deliberated upon for months by Trump’s advisors, while others say that it is just another of Trump’s antics. I’m not entirely sure I believe any claim that this move has been deliberated for months, although it would make sense considering the tough tone Trump took towards China on the campaign trail.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the effects of Trump’s call are all rainbows and sunshine. There are very real consequences of this action that the US (and the world) will have to deal with in the following weeks, months and years. However, I do think that media portrayals of this event have been rather one-sided in portraying the call as a gaffe and an international embarrassment.
Despite the negative consequences of his actions, there is a silver lining to this story, and I personally hold that silver lining as a positive event for Taiwan and for political communities fighting for their right to sovereignty elsewhere in the world. (I’m looking at you, Somaliland!) Furthermore, even if this does lead to tensions in US-China relations, if the US seeks to maintain its status as global hegemon, especially with President-elect Trump at the helm, it will have to re-assert itself on the international stage. Hopefully, this will not just be through the use of hard power (concerns of another Bush era comes to mind). Instead, I hope that the Trump administration will make use of “smart power”, by combining both soft and hard power to create new ties with allies like Taiwan while taking a firmer stance on the aggression of rivals like China towards entities like Taiwan, or in China’s moves to assert itself in the East and South China Seas.