Foreign Policy

Trump and Taiwan: Breaking from convention is progress


For decades the nation of Taiwan has held uncertain international status with an aggressive, prideful country just across a narrow strait, and the United States unwilling to lift a friendly country to its proper seat on the international stage.

The paradigm began to show signs of change on Friday after Donald Trump spoke with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

Before Trump could finish his tweet, China voiced significant frustration and anger that a President-elect would break decades of convention by recognizing the sovereignty of Taiwan in such a public way. China called out President-Elect Trump saying that he was the victim of a diplomatic “trick” by Taiwan.

American diplomats and much of the mainstream U.S. media have shared China’s concern about Trump’s breach of traditional U.S. diplomatic protocol.

{mosads}However, China is merely posturing to save face to their people, and these media and diplomatic voices are misinformed and drawing unnecessary attention to a non-story. The U.S. has allowed the Chinese to conjure this illusory perception to its people, while at the same time understanding that the diplomatic position and the diplomatic reality are very different. Maybe a new presidency could bring this relationship into the light and out of the charade-riddled diplomacy of the past thirty years.

New presidencies bring new opportunities to break age-old diplomatic norms. Obama issued an executive order lifting many aspects of the Cuban embargo in place since Kennedy. 

This was a break with convention. Diplomats cautioned, but many see this as a humanitarian cause that may lift the Cuban people. Nixon visited Beijing after decades of isolation—which was certainly a break in convention—and now we have relatively robust diplomatic relationship with China.

Diplomatic norms change, new U.S. presidents dictate them, and the incoming Trump presidency is no different.

The diplomatic relationship between the U.S., China, and Taiwan has always been complicated. However, there are more published illusions than diplomatic realities. What China does not say is that their condemnation of Trump for recognizing Taiwan is based on a lie, or at least a truth in title alone, like Syria’s  “democracy” or that the elliptical is a “workout” machine.

The facts speak to a diplomacy that Presidents for decades have recognized, and China has accepted. 

First, China permits Taiwan sovereignty in everything but name. The Chinese and Taiwanese officials have negotiated treaties for travel and visa restrictions. The Chinese recognize trade sovereignty of Taiwan. The Chinese have negotiated for cross border relationships in order to receive advanced medical procedures as well as a variety of joint business ventures in Taiwan.

Second, the U.S. has recognized Taiwan sovereignty since American general Douglas MacArthur directed Chiang Kai-Shek to move his forces to the island of Taiwan during the Chinese civil war.  In the decades following, the U.S. entered into numerous economic and military sales treaties including the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty.

Later, during the Cold War, the United States transferred the embassy from Taipei to Beijing under political pressure in the region. This agreement, known as the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, made an official acknowledgment by the U.S. that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.

Yet merely two months after this treaty with China, President Carter signed the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which established the American Institute in Taiwan, an embassy in everything but name.

In the past thirty years, the U.S. has been a military ally of the Taiwanese selling billions of dollars of weapons to Taiwan, including decommissioned U.S. warships harbored all around the island.

The U.S. has even intervened militarily in the region to calm tensions navigating warships in the Taiwan Strait to prevent hostilities. The relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. has always been close, and the U.S. has continued to support a sovereignty of both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China.

The world is skeptical of a Trump presidency. Plenty of evidence supports that skepticism. But, if the Chinese have not escalated the tension with Taiwan following sales of U.S. Stinger missiles in 2015 or Black Hawk helicopters in 2010 or Hellfire II Air-to-surface missiles in 1999, are we really to expect a conflict over a phone call from Taiwan? Hardly. China’s anger is as disingenuous as it is dishonest.

Just as much as we must hold our new President accountable for his mistakes (of which there are many in any Presidency), we also must be accountable ourselves in our reactions to mistakes large and small.

The more the media draws alarmist attention to every diplomatic norm that Trump breaks, the more the American people will be numb to when real breaches, which threaten national security and U.S. foreign policy, occur.

Breaks with convention can be intimidating, even unsettling, but this is not one of those. It’s a political illusion, a ploy that the three nations have known but have propped up to appease the masses in a prideful People’s Republic of China.

Undoubtedly, Donald Trump may act in ways that might sound the alarm for genuine concern, but this is not one of them. 

Tyler G. Grant is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and a Fulbright Fellow in Taiwan. He majored in political science and Chinese at Washington and Lee University.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.









Tags administration Asia China Donald Trump Donald Trump Foreign policy foreign relations Taiwan
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