Richard Nixon excelled at stating the obvious. On his historic first trip to China in February of 1972, he visited the Great Wall, marveling at its vast length and age. “I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall,” he remarked. But when dealing with a country as complex as China, Nixonian plainspeak was not always a bad thing. In a private conversation in June 1971 with Walter P. McConaughy, the U.S. ambassador to Taiwan, Nixon said that the United States needed to prepare Taiwan’s leaders for the eventual shock that would accompany Washington’s improved ties with Beijing. At the time, Washington had full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but not China; the small island nation was still one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In the eyes of the world, Taiwan’s strongman leader Chiang Kai-Shek was the legitimate ruler of China. But Taiwan, Nixon said, must know that Washington is engaging with Beijing, “not because we love them. But because they’re there.” China, he implied in his circuitous yet blunt way, was just too big to ignore anymore. More importantly, it had been a mistake to ignore China.
Amid the outcry following President-elect Donald Trump’s early December call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen—the first known occurrence of a U.S. president or president-elect speaking with a Taiwanese leader since Jimmy Carter—it’s worth recalling just how much Beijing has eclipsed Taipei in global importance. According to Tsai’s office, she told Trump during the call that she hoped the United States “would continue to support more opportunities for Taiwan to participate in international issues.” Yet the implicit legitimacy conferred upon Tsai by merely speaking with Trump, as an equal, is unprecedented in the post-Carter era.