Updated on December 2 at 7:49 p.m.
It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.
Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.
Trump’s call was first reported by the Financial Times, but the Trump campaign soon confirmed it and issued a readout of the conversation:
President-elect Trump spoke with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, who offered her congratulations. During the discussion, they noted the close economic, political, and security ties exists between Taiwan and the United States. President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.
Why would Trump not speak with Tsai? Here’s where the strangeness starts. The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along.