Taiwan and the Trumpian Uncertainty Principle

The high price of a phone call

President Tsai Ing-wen
President Tsai Ing-wen (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

Core to Donald Trump’s appeal, both at home and abroad, is that he doesn’t seem to care how he’s supposed to behave. He certainly doesn’t fuss over offending Chinese nationalist sensibilities. This perhaps explains, in part, his curious adventure in China-Taiwan diplomacy.

On December 2, Tsai Ing-Wen, the president of Taiwan, called Trump to congratulate him on his victory, making her the first Taiwanese president in decades to speak directly to her American counterpart. “It’s like a beam of new hope,” one Taiwanese housemaker told CNN, after it happened. Nine days after the call, Trump told The Wall Street Journal, “Everything is under negotiation including One China,” a stunning reference to a loose doctrine under which Washington can regard Taiwan as an ally and maintain unofficial diplomatic relations with Taipei, so long as it doesn’t acknowledge Taiwanese independence.

Soon, Trump was picking up fans in Taiwan. Kao-Cheng Wang, a college dean, said he believed Trump would try to increase economic relations between the U.S. and his country. “Trump will not be restricted by the established foreign policy,” he said.I would definitely love to see that he would retain his outspokenness, especially if [Trump] can use it to make a breakthrough in terms of traditional restrictions on Taiwan-U.S. relations,” said Freddy Lim, former metal band front man and leader of the progressive New Power Party.

China, meanwhile, was not amused. During the Cold War, the United States regarded Taipei as the legitimate government of China. All that changed in 1971 under Richard Nixon, when the United States recognized Beijing as the true government of China. China, over the decades, has resented Taiwan for thinking of itself as an independent entity; younger Taiwanese, in particular, seem to have no desire to reunite with Beijing. So it came as no surprise when, in response to Trump and Taiwan’s bonhomie, China sent an aircraft carrier through the straits of Taiwan in a move apparently designed to intimidate the island nation.

Since then, Trump seems to have tempered his boldness. He has criticized Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, after seemingly embracing it, and reaffirmed a tight Japan-U.S. relationship that he once said exploited the United States. And now he’s walking back his moves on Taiwan: On his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping last Thursday, Trump said he would honor the One China policy.

This leaves Taiwan in a perilous place—Trump may renegotiate the status quo, or he may simply revert back to it. “We were kind of surprised that he was willing to take the call,” Lo Chih-Cheng, a Taiwanese ruling-party legislator who advises Tsai on foreign policy, said to me. “We were even more surprised when he tweeted it saying he took the call. More importantly, he said that the One-China policy should be questioned in some way. We were somewhat surprised by that.”

I Yuan, a research fellow at Taiwan’s Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, was encouraged that things appear to have “swung back to the normal track, which facilitates stable cross-straits relations,” after Trump acknowledged the One China policy. But he said the Trump administration continued to behave in unpredictable ways. “He created an inner circle when it comes to national security and exercises power swiftly and secretly by delegating powers to family members. This is something new. If you want to say this will create a more chaotic situation, it might,” Yuan said. It’s further proof that for America’s allies, guessing the direction of U.S. policy under Trump remains impossible.

Though it’s unclear if Trump knew it, relations between Taiwan and China were already at an eight-year low even before the call. President Tsai won her election after promising to take a cooler stance towards China than her predecessor, Ma Ying-Jeou, who emphasized closer economic and cultural ties with mainland China as the best path forward for Taiwan. Tsai, unlike her predecessor, refused to declare her administration’s support for the 1992 Consensus, which acknowledges Taiwan as an indivisible part of China, but implicitly commits it not to invade by force, and Taiwan to not formally declare independence. Tsai has never declared an outright desire for formal independence from China, but Beijing considers her refusal to accept the Consensus provocative enough. Her foreign policy has instead emphasized building closer political and economic ties with Southeast Asian countries, Japan, and the United States.

In December, China accused Tsai of engaging in “tricks” with the United States after she used a stopover in America to hold meetings and photo ops with China hawks like Florida Senator Marco Rubio. In early January, a few weeks after Trump questioned the One China policy, Taiwan scrambled fighter planes and warships as a Chinese aircraft carrier passed through the straits of Taiwan. Other signs of souring Taiwan-China relations soon emerged. Tsai criticized China’s government for interfering with Taiwanese businesses on the mainland, amid signs that Chinese tourism to Taiwan had slumped precipitously. China ratcheted up a campaign to pressure nations that maintained official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, getting Sao Tome and Principe to switch to China’s team, after limiting this type of brinkmanship under her predecessor. “Step by step, Beijing is going back to the old path of dividing, coercing, and even threatening and intimidating Taiwan,” Tsai said in a New Year’s Eve address.

I Yuan said that within Tsai’s inner circle, there’s a growing awareness that the president’s call had consequences. People are now coming to grips with the reality” of the phone call’s “high price,” Yuan said.

Jason Hsu, a Taiwanese opposition lawmaker, said that Tsai ought to be more cautious in dealing with Trump, given his waffling on One China and the tension between Taipei and Beijing. “I think the current government was unsure of the intention of the rants on Twitter. I think we got a little bit overexcited,” he said. “That needs to be something we learn in dealing with a somewhat unusual president. We need to be more cautious, extraordinarily cautious, in creating opportunities for him to misfire.”

Many in Taiwan worry that Trump primarily sees their country as a potential bargaining chip, should he decide to strike some sort of grand deal with China. Under this logic, Trump demonstrated to China that U.S. support for the One China policy is conditional, so that China will offer the United States inducements in exchange for Trump adopting a position on Taiwan that is favorable to China. Ashley Townshend, research fellow at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney said, “If you’re Taiwan there’s a lot more uncertainty, a lot more to be worried about than happy about in terms of how Donald Trump has behaved towards you since the election. Donald Trump is not an advocate of defending democracy abroad. He is a dealmaker who strikes bargains.”

For now, Trump has restored a fairly traditional American foreign policy. But along the way, he created massive uncertainty, forcing America’s Pacific allies to lie low and try to avoid any damage from an ill-considered Trump pronouncement. “For other allies, it’s best not to get tangled up with the two giant’s dance, including Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. In other words, wait-and-see is the best policy for the moment,” Hsu said.

Lo, the foreign policy advisor to Tsai, worried that an angry China has much greater consequences for little Taiwan, than it does to big America an ocean away. Taiwan has to be very cautious going forward, he said. “China is angry at the U.S. but what they do is usually to pick Taiwan as a scapegoat. … We have to be very low-profile, low-key try to not to give excuse to Beijing,” he said. “Look what happened after the call. They said Taiwan is playing dirty tricks.”

Reporting for this piece was supported by a grant from the International Reporting Project.