‘Trump Has Already Created Lots of Chaos,’ Cont'd

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at her office in Taipei, Taiwan, in this handout photo made available on December 3, 2016. (Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Joseph Gualtieri in Hong Kong—the same Atlantic reader we featured in our earlier note about Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese president—pushes back on my interview with Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai:

I’ve just finished reading your engaging interview. I am now wondering why you didn’t feel the need to address or at least mark out some of Shen Dingli’s more outlandish claims.

For example, the comparison of Taiwan to Hawaii and Texas is patently ridiculous; both states voted to join the United States, were incorporated through a legal process, and, despite some grumbling, an overwhelming majority of their citizens acknowledge and accept that their states belong to the United States. I don’t think you can say the same about Taiwan, which has never—not for one day—been a part of the [People’s Republic of China] and whose people overwhelmingly choose not to become a part of China. Shen might have cited the expansionist impulses behind the U.S. acquisition of Texas and Hawaii, but then it might be pointed out that in the eyes of most people and contemporary legal understandings, this kind of behavior is no longer acceptable.

After letting his assertion that “Taiwan is a part of China” go unquestioned, you similarly leave unchallenged the assertion that Trump and America are causing all of the chaos (never mind China’s building artificial islands [in the South China Sea], [considering] unilaterally declaring an [Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea], rejecting the findings of international tribunals, and on and on). You allow his outrageous erasure of all of the ambiguity inherent to the One-China Policy (and you allow him to treat it like an immutable fact rather than a political workaround). And you allow him to paint a neat little history of Taiwan that excludes thousands of years of aboriginal inhabitation, short-lived colonization projects by Spain and the Netherlands, centuries of disconnect from the authorities on Mainland China, 50 years of Japanese rule, and invasion and decades of subjugation by the violent [Kuomintang] dictatorship [after the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek fled from mainland China to Taiwan and reconstituted the Republic of China on the island following Mao Zedong’s revolution in 1949].

My goal with the interview was to offer readers a sense of what Trump’s Taiwan call, along with his campaign and post-campaign rhetoric about China, look like from China and particularly among Chinese who spend their time thinking about how to manage the country’s high-stakes relationship with the United States. As an expert on Chinese foreign policy who can speak more openly than, say, the Chinese foreign minister can, Shen Dingli is well-positioned to provide this perspective. You can argue, as Joseph does, that the narrative he presents about Taiwan is ideological or misleading, but his nationalistic views are nevertheless widespread in China. Such views could shape the Chinese government’s response if Trump, as president, pursues changes to U.S. policy on Taiwan. Shen—like many people in China, I suspect—is also in the process of recalibrating his views of Trump after initially applauding his victory.

That said, Joseph raises very important contextual points that are worth keeping in mind during what looks set to be a more volatile period in U.S.-China relations. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to compare the independence movement in Taiwan to secessionist movements in Texas and Hawaii, but I agree they shouldn’t be equated. It’s also fair to point out that the Chinese government has generated actual instability in the South China Sea through its island-building, whereas the chaos Trump has brought to international affairs is, at this point, mostly theoretical or provisional.

Critically, the concept of “One China” is indeed an ambiguous political construct rather than an objective truth—the United States officially recognizes Taiwan as part of China but sells weapons to and maintains close unofficial relations with the Taiwanese, while Taipei and Beijing agree to disagree on which One China is legitimate. These policies might seem nonsensical and ripe for rethinking, especially among Americans who see in Taiwan a robust democracy and solid ally vulnerable to Chinese aggression. And maybe these policies should be reconsidered, as Trump’s team has indicated.

But these policies are ambiguous political constructs for a reason—to prevent a triangle of tense relationships from unraveling over an extremely sensitive sovereignty dispute. That’s the danger Shen points to in his response to Trump’s Taiwan call. That danger is very real, even if the narrative Shen employs to discuss it—of the Trump administration risking national decline and international chaos to challenge a sensible, sacrosanct Taiwan policy—is the very narrative the Chinese government would want to impress upon American officials.

Have additional thoughts on the interview or Trump’s phone call? Please send us a note—especially if you’re a Taiwan or China scholar and want to add your perspective to our ongoing discussion: hello@theatlantic.com.