James Fallows, Uri Friedman, and Atlantic readers discuss the ramifications of a Trump presidency when it comes to the U.S.’s complicated relationship with China. (For a primer, read our December 2016 cover story by Fallows, “China’s Great Leap Backward.”) If you’d like to join in, please send us a note: email@example.com.
The phone call was the first known occurrence of a U.S. president or president-elect speaking with a Taiwanese leader since Jimmy Carter (who, incidentally, hired Fallows as his top speechwriter). If you’re like me and need a primer on China-Taiwan-U.S. relations, my colleague David Graham has you covered. On the “strangeness” of that triad:
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. […] Under the 1992 Consensus, another artful diplomatic fiction, both Taipei and Beijing agreed that there was only one China and agreed to disagree on which was legitimate, as well as maintaining two separate systems. During the Bush years, the U.S. said it would defend Taiwan in an attack, but Bush also pushed back on Taiwanese moves toward independence.
Isaac Stone Fish goes into greater historical detail in an Atlantic piece called “The Long Fall of Taiwan.” As far as reader input, here’s the most up-voted comment on David’s piece:
If Trump calling Tsai was a calculated move, I’m all for it. Taiwan is a wonderful free country that the rest of Asia should look to as an example. Taiwan should be on a pedestal, and the U.S. should have an open and proud alliance with them. China is moving in the right direction, but they are currently a disgrace to human decency and have a lot to learn from Taiwan.
If it’s a Being There moment, and Trump really had no idea what he was doing, it’s concerning.
That view from our reader basically aligns with the following email that Fallows just forwarded me, from a reader in Hong Kong:
Sorry for a long email, but here are some thoughts on Trump and Tsai’s phone call. TL;DR: China’s recent behavior and Taiwan’s growing vulnerability mean that, as incompetent as Trump is, his transgression may provide an opening for a long-overdue reconsideration of our Taiwan policy.
From the perspective of many of us in Hong Kong, it’s troubling to think of how Taiwanese society could end up if steps are not taken to ensure Taiwanese independence (or at least de facto independence). Look at how Beijing has used every tool at its disposal to stifle dissent and renege on its promises for democracy in Hong Kong:
the NPCSC decision regarding chief executive elections that sparked the 2014 Umbrella Movement; kidnapping booksellers and the larger story of how Hong Kong’s media have come under control of Mainland interests; interfering with institutional autonomy and academic freedom at local universities; first denying localist politicians the right to run in elections and then, with the most recent interpretation of the Basic law, creating a tool to eject (and possibly bankrupt) democratically elected lawmakers who are deemed to have been “insincere” or “insufficiently patriotic” in their oaths.
Put this beside the electoral sham that just occurred on the mainland, the recent destruction of much of Larung Gar, and the seizure of passports from Xinjiang residents. And there’s the ongoing campaign against NGOs and human rights lawyers on the mainland. All of this is contrary to American values and, to some degree, American interests.
And, of course, there’s very, very little that America can do about any of this, because all of the foregoing has occurred within China itself. We can, however, influence how things play out in Taiwan, and I think it’s high time for U.S. to show more explicit support of the vibrant, tolerant democracy that Taiwan has become. At a time when some East Asian states are turning toward authoritarianism (I’m thinking mostly of Thailand and the Philippines), I consider it morally and strategically critical to bolster our support for democracies in the region, even at the risk of further irritating China. I would prefer a well thought-out game plan for how to engage with China on new terms and slowly ratcheting up our support for Taipei with a long-term view toward recognizing Taiwan as an independent state.
I do not think Donald Trump takes a long-term view toward anything, and I very much doubt he has the skill set to handle the kind of shifts I would like to see. But without a wildcard like Trump in command, any significant reconsideration of our relationship with Taiwan would seem extremely unlikely. As [Fallows says in his new cover story], we’ve followed more or less the same policy for 37 years, and Taiwan is as vulnerable as ever.
In much of the media, the Chinese narrative—the unthinking and seemingly obligatory reference to Taiwan as a “renegade province,” the elevation of the One China Policy from political workaround to objective fact, sparse mention of the thousands of missiles pointed toward Taiwan or the fact that Taiwan has never been a part of the PRC—continues to dominate. China continues to bully Taiwan and exclude Taiwan from international organizations. I can’t see the U.S. mounting a meaningful challenge to any of this within the current framework of US-ROC (and US-PRC) relations. Odd as it is to admit this, I think Trump may have unknowingly provided the necessary shock to the system.
Why should the U.S. stand aside as the PRC continues to threaten Taiwan and meddle in Taiwanese affairs? If Xi and Ma can shake hands, Trump and Tsai can chat. A policy that forbids us from even acknowledging the legitimacy of our allies while allowing our competitors to bully them is clearly a flawed one.
No one within the establishment was ever going to acknowledge inadequacy of our Taiwan policy, and Trump’s transgression could spark an interesting discussion about how to move forward. I think everyone who cares about Taiwan and, more broadly, our policies in Asia would appreciate that debate. What concerns me is that rather using this episode as a launching point for these kinds of discussions, much of the media is simply framing this as another example of how incompetent Trump is. Fair enough—he is—but I think that focus obscures the larger issues at play.
Disagree? What do you think about Trump’s phone call or the status quo of U.S. relations in the region? If you live in China and/or Taiwan, spent a significant amount of time there, or are a notable expert on foreign policy in that region, please send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org. (Fallows wants to get a discussion thread going soon and thus detail his own thoughts, but he’s swamped at the moment.)
I live in Beijing and am a Chinese citizen. Some effects in Asia related to Trump’s presidency could be:
The ditching of TPP (unless Obama could manage to get it passed in his lame-duck period) to the disappointment of countries like Japan and Singapore, who view TPP as a critical piece to counter the rise of China. In a totally different manner, China will be more than happy to see the containment attempt falling in tatters.
Will the U.S. troops leave Asia? If that’s the case, countries like Japan—the arch enemy of China—could go nuclear for its security. So Beijing can hardly be called a winner as some has already concluded from the election victory of Trump. Anyway, few Chinese analysts expect a withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea even under an isolationist president like Trump. But Tokyo and Seoul may, to their dislike, have to pay a certain amount of “protection fee.”
Under President Trump, trade frictions between the U.S. and China may well rise. The understanding is that’ll be manageable, given the strong interdependence of the two economies.
An isolationist U.S. will meddle less in the affairs of other countries. That U.S. will be more welcomed in Asia in general. It’s naive to think that a yearly human rights report will improve rights situations in other countries. Ultimately it’s up to the governments and their peoples to figure out how to conduct their own daily businesses.
So all in all, President Trump doesn’t portend the end of the world. After all, the world is changing with the rise of developing countries like China and India and the U.S. in decline. Why should the world cling to an international system that’s more than 70 years old?
Taiwan is a wonderful free country that the rest of Asia should look to as an example. Taiwan should be on a pedestal, and the U.S. should have an open and proud alliance with them.
This next reader vehemently disagrees:
I was born in Nanjing, China, the once capital of China and headquarters to the KMT [Kuomintang] party of Taiwan and China. But I immigrated to the USA at age 6. To say that Taiwan should be put on a pedestal in Asia as a sign of democracy is patronizing and ridiculous. Let me take you back to the history of China and Taiwan.
The KMT party founded modern China in 1911 and ruled it with an iron fist until the communists ran them out of the mainland. As I said, I am from Nanjing, and there are still monuments there to the KMT that honor Chiang Kai-shek. He is not hated or blamed for the corruption of the KMT. He had good intentions. It was the people around him. Taiwanese people still make yearly pilgrimages to where it all began.
A major reason for the KMT’s defeat to the peasants and farmers is because of their mismanagement of China’s military and economy, and their utter disdain for the poor. The poor were suffering tremendously. Their utter disregard for the lives of the common man was shown in the Nanjing massacre.
People read about the Nanjing massacre and study the history of it, but that was my people and my hometown that happened to. The KMT knew the Japanese were coming, so they decided to take their elite military and flee the capital, leaving the civilians, poor farmers, and peasants to the mercy of the Japanese imperial army in hopes of slowing the Japanese down while they regrouped. They didn’t evacuate the city; they abandoned it. Who does that? What government doesn’t protect the lives of their people? Who sacrifices the lives of 300,000 innocent women, elderly, children to save their own skin? That’s unforgivable.
Mao the great “despot” was a mere librarian. He could read and was educated. He made many mistakes, no doubt there. People like him usually were sided with the elite ruling class, something the peasants couldn’t do back then, since they had no access to an education. The KMT had no interest in trying to educate the common Chinese peasant. This is why education is so important to Chinese people to this day.
China’s communist win shocked the ruling elite of the world. (If China was a democracy under the KMT, there would have been no reason to have a Chinese civil war.) It wasn’t some sort of devious plan to take over the world. The people just wanted to have a chance to better themselves in life. We see the disdain the civilized elite have for the common man around the world today.
When the KMT led by Chiang arrived in Taiwan, they enslaved and massacred the aboriginals and other settlers. They committed the 228 atrocity in Taiwan, cruelly putting down any signs of rebellion. They wrote a constitution that claims mainland China, Tibet, and the 9 dash line (remarkably, the KMT are the ones whom drew the 9 dash line and have also protested The Hague ruling in the south seas). The 9 dash line originates with Taiwan, yet the CCP [Communist Party of China] gets bashed for it alone. See the hypocrisy.
There is a reason why our government has not spoken directly to Taiwan in 37 years. It’s a democratic country today, but Taiwan was under martial law from 1949 until 1987. They were elitists that had no regard for the common Chinese person. If people support Bernie Sanders, then they would also have supported the peasants of China. It is the same concept.
Somehow the USA still supported that regime that massacred, enslaved, stole the natives land, imprisoned innocent people. Now they claim democracy. It doesn’t do away with the sins of their past to the Chinese people and aboriginal Taiwanese people. Taiwan has never apologized to the People of China who died and suffered in poverty and abandoned by the KMT. Yet the ROC constitution says they are the rightful rulers of China and their goal is to retake the mainland. Yeah. Really.
In fact, the Taiwanese are still very elitist and arrogant to mainlanders. There are deep ethnic and racial divisions in Taiwan because of the errors of their past, believe it or not. So it is hard for the people of Asia and mainland China especially to look towards them as a beacon of democracy. Spare us all.
How can the USA support the KMT and antagonize the CCP? Both parties are pretty bad. Chinese history is complicated and messy. But the CCP cared for the common man.
Trust me when I say Asia doesn’t look at Taiwan like a shining democratic beacon. They are actually currently still manipulating their currency. Corruption is rife in Taiwan as well.
Taiwan’s parliament is the laughingstock of Asia. They are always brawling with one another. Another day, another televised fight. Once a legislator actually ate a bill to prevent it from being passed. She. Ate. It. They bite one another, punch one another. Just straight up barbarism. The CCP doesn’t do this. That’s not how you get people to respect you.
Trump criticizes Bush for destabilizing the Middle East. What is he doing? By recognizing the president of Taiwan with his phone call, he has in fact delegitimatized the ruling party of China and president Xi. China cannot have two presidents. Is Trump’s foolish and brazen enough to try to facilitate a regime change in mainland China?
Westerners know that China claims Taiwan to be a part of China. They often miss the fact that Taiwan considers China to be a part of Taiwan too. This is a civil war. To Beijing, Trump is interfering in the Chinese civil war. It hasn’t been legally resolved yet. China will not take this slight as if this is nothing. This is an honor issue to the Chinese people and Beijing.
Beijing let Trump have a pass with his phone call to Taiwan and said it probably was due to inexperience. Then Trump decided to go on Twitter. Then Bob Dole came out and said he arranged the call and they spoke about China and stability in the region. Oh boy. It is on like Donkey Kong.
Honestly, this Trump call and especially his tweets have just made life much harder for Taiwan. China will retaliate and has already announced, in a state controlled newspaper, that Taiwan should be punished. The paper is also calling for the Chinese government to close their American embassies and pull the diplomats out to prepare for war.
Are there any holes in that history you’d like to fill? Or would you like to defend Taiwan’s role in the region today? Please send us a note and we’ll aim to include: email@example.com. Update from reader John:
Your reader’s attempt to delegitimize Taiwan’s democracy by conflating Taiwan with the KMT is an insult to the Taiwanese democracy activists who struggled and sacrificed against the KMT for decades. It is to the courage and steadfastness of activists during martial law, such as the Tangwai movement, that Taiwanese owe their democracy. And it is thanks to the vigilance of subsequent generations of activists—from the Wild Lilies of the 1990s to the Wild Strawberries of the 2000s to the Sunflowers of the 2010s—that Taiwanese have kept their democracy so far. And they have organized, as one does in a democracy, to change the constitution that your reader criticizes.
Your reader claims to empathize with those who were in Taiwan before the KMT and suffered oppression at its hands. As a descendant of those people, I can tell you that we don’t want the disingenuous sympathy of someone who has the gall to hold us responsible for our oppressors' crimes against us. Seventy years ago, the Taiwanese were handed over to the authoritarians of the Kuomintang, and they don’t care to repeat the experience with the authoritarians of the Chinese Communist Party.
Matt also reacts to the first reader:
Oh boy. (I’m not Taiwanese, but I’m married to one.) Is this person REALLY comparing CKS to Mao? Mao was one of history’s most brutal dictators with 10s of millions of deaths to his credit. Read Dikötter’s trilogy to get all the tragic details.
Whether the CCP wanted to “take over the world” or not, the Soviets sure did, and they were THE major supporter of the CCP.
The claim that Chinese people care about education because the KMT didn’t care about it is ludicrous; the imperial exams and education in general have been a big part of Chinese history for 100s of years.
The Taiwanese democracy may be messy and rough, but name one other Asian democracy that is better? Korea? Philippines? Google “election tourists Taiwan”; mainland Chinese come to Taiwan to view the elections because they don’t have such a thing.
Another reader fisks the first one:
The first several paragraphs describe the atrocities committed by the KMT, from the time they were in power in China up until the 228 massacre. I wholly agree the behavior of the KMT during that time period is not worth excusing. But note that the situation in Taiwan is considerably different today. The KMT is no longer the sole party imposing martial law upon the country; they are one of many active parties in a democracy. The democratically elected president of Taiwan is from the DPP.
Getting into the specifics of Taiwan today, your reader writes: “Now they claim democracy.” This is not a claim; Taiwan is practicing democracy.
It doesn’t do away the sins of their past to the Chinese people and aboriginal Taiwanese people. Taiwan has never apologized to the People of China who died and suffered in poverty and abandoned by the KMT.
Remember, this reader already spent a lot of time talking about the horrors of martial law imposed by the KMT by the people of Taiwan. The people of Taiwan did not choose to commit the crimes that the KMT did in China. Taiwan was a colony of Japan at that time. It strains credulity to make the Taiwanese responsible for this. The people of Taiwan were victims of the KMT as well.
“Yet the ROC constitution says they are the rightful rulers of China and their goal is to retake the mainland.”
This was imposed upon the Taiwanese people during the period of one party, non-democratic rule. This is not what the Taiwanese people want. This issue has been endlessly surveyed. The majority of Taiwanese people identify themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese, and have no interest in unification with China, much less taking over China. However, most people in Taiwan will not take the political action to outright declare Taiwan’s independence from China out of justified concern about retaliation from China.
In fact, the Taiwanese are still very elitist and arrogant to mainlanders. There are deep ethnic and racial divisions in Taiwan because of the errors of their past, believe it or not.
This is just plain ignorance of history. As a matter of fact, for a long time the mainlanders who came to China with the KMT were very elitist and arrogant to the Taiwanese. The state-controlled media continually pushed the message that speaking Mandarin was a sign of erudition, and Taiwanese, which is spoken by a large number of population in Taiwan, was continually denigrated and suppressed during the time of martial law. The KMT during that time also shut the people of Taiwan out of the political process, claiming that they could not hold a legitimate election until they retake China. Naturally, much of the power and the resources that go with the power, accrued to the mainlanders who came to Taiwan along with the KMT. So yes, there is tension to this day between the Taiwanese and mainlanders, but the reason is very much opposite.
“So it is hard for the people of Asia and mainland China especially to look towards them as a beacon of democracy.”
Easily refutable. Look at what is happening in Hong Kong. There is now a lot of sympathy and communal feeling between the people of Hong Kong who are trying to hold onto their rights and the Taiwanese people.
How can the USA support the KMT and antagonize the CCP? Both parties are pretty bad. Chinese history is complicated and messy. But the CCP cared for the common man.
… conveniently ignoring that the party in power in Taiwan right now is NOT the KMT.
And finally this:
Westerners know that China claims Taiwan to be a part of China. They often miss the fact that Taiwan considers China to be a part of Taiwan too. This is a civil war.
Taiwanese people have zero interest in taking over China. The KMT once had delusions in that regard, but that is simply not the reality today. Taiwanese people would really just like to be left alone to run their democracy.
The reader seemed to be parroting the usual talking points from China’s government, and I’m quite familiar with their practice of siccing their blend of useful idiots and paid commentators on whoever doesn’t toe the party line.
Update from the very first reader:
It is absolutely ridiculous that someone had the nerve to call me a CCP parrot or someone paid to comment negatively about Taiwan. That simply isn’t true. I am a real person. I am not a paid troll or bot. But hey I would love to be paid; is The Atlantic hiring?
I am an American citizen. Completely educated in America. I can barely even read Chinese. This just another way for people to attempt to discredit the message by discrediting the messenger. I backed up my commentary with facts, articles, and history. The other person just threw insults and insinuations. No links, nada, to back up what they are saying.
Arguing that the DPP is in the presidency in the present now. Doesn’t mean that somehow all the crimes of the KMT are absolved. Let's be real. Tsai has only been in office since May 2016.
There would be no DPP no Taiwan without the KMT. The DPP has had elected legislators in the Taiwanese parliament since 1996. I said they claim democracy, because they do claim it. But their authoritarian constitution regarding mainland China hasn’t changed at all! What's up with that?
I can say I don’t like guns or the Second Amendment. It doesn’t matter. The constitution is the law of the land. Plenty of people in America say it, but it doesn't change the law.
It’s like how some people today in the USA say “oh slavery isn’t my fault.” No it isn’t your fault, but you wouldn’t be where you are today without the contributions of the slaves. Instead of being sympathetic and acknowledging the plight of slaves and slavery, people run around saying it wasn’t me. Nobody said it was you, so stop freaking out when people mention it. This is how Taiwanese people react when anyone mentions what the KMT that founded their country did to the people of the mainland.
The KMT only makes up about 20% of Taiwan’s population. But that 20% holds the most wealth and influence in Taiwan. The DPP wants to prosecute the KMT for their ill gotten gains from their pillaging of Chinese relics and wealth when they fled the mainland. The KMT of Taiwan are calling it a witch hunt.
I can empathize with the struggle of the aboriginal people and the other settlers of Taiwan that were there before the KMT arrived to cruelly put them down. The KMT perfected and honed their cruelty on the mainland. So the non-KMT Taiwanese and mainland Chinese people have that in common.
The real question is do people believe it is China that is preventing the Taiwanese constitution to be changed? Or are there some other factors involved as well? It’s easy to blame China for everything. Everything is Obama’s fault. Soon everything is going to be Trump’s fault. But it’s not that simple. From my understanding, many Taiwanese people and KMT party want to maintain the status quo.
No unification, no independence. In order to maintain Taiwan’s economy. As Taiwan is an export-driven economy and 40% of their exports go to the mainland. Do people really believe that China alone can stop the ROC from changing their constitution? Or are there other factors as well that Taiwanese leadership doesn't discuss? By blaming China, that gives the leadership of Taiwan an easy pass.
Meanwhile in Taiwan, the KMT are still holding onto the one-China policy and pushing their party to unite in that talking point. Taiwan needs to unite for independence first before trying to change the constitution right? Before claiming that the CCP is the one who is oppressing them from independence.
Thanks for reading.
Signed by a real person.
Another reader enters the fray:
I am an American who has resided in Taiwan for the past 11 years. I have a Taiwanese wife, a child, and a home here. I do not pretend to be an expert on international relations; I am simply a common everyday working immigrant in a foreign country, albeit one that most people around the world no longer classify as “a real country.”
Although its official title is the Republic of China, few references to that moniker continue to exist in the media. Out of convention, the country and its people are commonly referred to as Taiwan and Taiwanese, respectively. It would be prudent to point out the President-elect Trump did not receive a phone call from the “President of Taiwan”; he received a call from the democratically elected President of the ROC, and President Tsai’s constituents are called Taiwanese.
This is somewhat similar to the President of the USA being elected by North Americans. I am pointing this out because, despite the diplomatic convenience in applying a “One China” policy, the fact remains that there still are two “Chinas”: ROC and PRC.
There is a convention in referring to Taiwan—ROC—as simply “Taiwan.” Unfortunately, this convention plays into the hand of the PRC (aka Red China), which refers to it as the “Province of Taiwan, PRC.” Until such time as the People’s Republic of China (along with the world body) chooses to recognize the Taiwanese People and the democratic government they enjoy as being what it always has been, a separate entity from the PRC in every way shape and form, this de facto country should still be referred to as the ROC.
I am pro-Taiwan and I am pro-Independence, insofar as asserting the principles of self-determination and a maintaining a pre-existing political situation (respectively), for the residents of Taiwan.
One more reader for now:
My initial reaction to the Trump-Tsai call and Trump’s (expected) Twitter follow-up was hesitant joy. After all, this was the first time direct contact occurred between the two countries composing my Taiwanese-American nationality in nearly 40 years, not to mention the fact that Trump recognized Taiwan (as opposed to Republic of China, Chinese Taipei, etc.) and our president (as opposed to “leader of the region”).
In the aftermath, however, the hesitant part of that reaction overpowered the joy part. It is Trump, after all. His track record of flip-flopping to the point that many see him as a demagogue instills great fear in me for what this means for Taiwan-U.S.-China relations. While yes, he has preached a hard stance against Beijing, how long will he stick to it? Not only that, but with China’s economic influence permeating the world, how much say will the U.S. have on world relations? Not to mention, if Trump only brings Taiwan into the picture to aggravate Beijing, this will end up hurting Taiwan if he ends up changing his stance, leaving Taiwan vulnerable to an angry China.
Also, I wish to comment on media rhetoric. Suddenly, everyone is an expert on Taiwan, despite little knowledge about its place in the world and how it got there. Conservatives praise it as “the only democracy on Chinese soil”—despite the fact that saying “Chinese soil” implies that Taiwan is part of China, which it hasn’t been since the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, which only panders to China; the correct term would be “ethnically Chinese.”
Liberals point out Trump’s lack of expertise—despite the fact that Taipei Times, a Taiwanese newspaper, announced the day before that the call was occurring, and communication between both sides occurred before the call happened. This is especially of note since the current Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, ran on a stance of maintaining the status quo by not provoking China through moves towards independence, meaning it makes no sense for her to agree to an “on-the-whim” call that would change the state of Taiwan-U.S. relations.
Additionally, both Trump and the media are responsible for making it seem like the call was solely Taiwan’s move (with Trump saying “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME”), which creates an environment where a heated and radical response from China towards Taiwan would be expected, compared to the initial response of “it’s just a little move by Taiwan.”
One last note. For those seeing this solely as the “Taiwan issue” (even though Taiwan is a strategically located ally that peacefully transitioned to democracy with a larger population than Australia and a populace that is active in its democracy and progress), we must not forget who was partially responsible for putting Taiwan into this situation in the first place: After WWII, Japan withdrew from Taiwan. Our people enjoyed a short-live freedom. Then, in their fight against communism, U.S. forces installed Chiang Kai-Shek and his forces into Taiwan to fight the communist Chinese. While not Communist, Chiang Kai-shek instituted a 38-year period of martial law, taking more than 30,000 lives, countless assets, and draining Taiwan of its resources in the process. Moreover, Chiang’s determination to rule China caused him to instill a system in Taiwan where children came to lose their identity as Taiwanese, such as with, according to my parents, punishments for speaking our native Taiwanese at school.
But most importantly, this Chinese dictator in Taiwan set the stage for the Taiwan-China conflicts that now, through the great media star Donald Trump, everyone is talking about.
Update: We keep getting really smart emails from readers, namely this one:
I worked for the State Department at the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan—the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)—as a contract employee during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of my bailiwick was to cover Taiwan’s economic relations with China and Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. During the rest of my career, I’ve worked as a journalist in Hong Kong and Taiwan for news organizations such as Bloomberg. I’ve lived in Taiwan for more than 20 years and am now a permanent resident here.
For more than 70 years, the U.S. has had a deeply flawed policy on Taiwan and China. Taiwan has never been part of China, but the U.S. rather oddly supports the peaceful unification of the two sides. The U.S. needs to recognize Taiwan as an entity—and ideally a sovereign nation—that is independent.
Taiwan has ruled itself effectively as an independent nation for nearly 70 years, and, in stark contrast to China, today has one of Asia’s few vibrant democracies. Taiwan is a staunch ally of Japan, South Korea, and the Western nations.
Yet virtually every article in the international media puts Taiwan in an entirely different context. Almost every news report about Taiwan has several boilerplate phrases stating that “China views Taiwan as a renegade province and has not ruled out the use of force to retake the island if it declares independence,” and “under the one China policy, the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with China since 1979, when the U.S. broke off official relations with Taiwan.” These tired old descriptions give international readers a mistaken impression that Taiwan is somehow part of China.
Any people who would like to understand more about Taiwan’s recent history should read the book Formosa Betrayed by the former U.S. diplomat George Kerr. His eyewitness account of the takeover of Taiwan by an army led by China’s Nationalist Party during the waning years of WWII explain much about why Taiwan still has an unclear status today. At that time, one faction in the U.S. government was contemplating the takeover of Taiwan as a U.S. asset, much the same as Okinawa is today. (Before WWII, Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years. For centuries before that, Taiwan was under the control of various European nations.)
Today, Taiwan has emerged from its colonial past and is Asia’s fifth largest economy. The island makes a third of the world’s semiconductors, used in everything from Apple iPhones to space satellites. Although few people know where Taiwan is on a world map, the island is of key importance technologically and militarily to the world.
Unfortunately, China’s government has done everything possible to marginalize Taiwan and exclude it from participation in international organizations such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In APEC and other international fora, China has forced Taiwan to accept a designation as “Chinese Taipei.” On April 20 this year, the authorities in Beijing forced a Taiwanese delegation out of a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Europe. China has kept Taiwan out of other international organizations such as the World Health Organization and Interpol purely out of political considerations. To help contain global outbreaks of disease and to prevent crime, Taiwan should be allowed to participate in these organizations.
The U.S. needs to develop a policy on Taiwan that reflects its independent status and the key role it plays in the world. It can start by supporting Taiwan’s membership in more international organizations under a name such as Taiwan. Eventually, the U.S. could consider restoring diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Donald Trump has taken the right step in receiving the recent phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen about a week ago. Trump’s gesture is completely in line with the U.S. policy of deliberate ambiguity in its foreign relations. It is time for the U.S. to adopt a Taiwan policy that is not completely in line with China’s expectations and more consistent with U.S. interests in order to gain more latitude and bargaining power.
Former U.S. Ambassador James Lilley accurately described Taiwan as the “cork in China’s bottle.” He, like China’s leaders, recognized Taiwan’s strategic importance. It is time now for the U.S. to re-evaluate its policy on Taiwan and newly recognize Taiwan’s importance.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In my cover story in the December issue of the magazine, on how the United States should prepare for the possibility of a more truculent and repressive China, I mention the concept of the “Thucydides Trap.” The article describes the implications:
This concept was popularized by the Harvard political scientist [and my one-time professor as an undergraduate] Graham Allison. Its premise is that through the 2,500 years since the Peloponnesian warfare that Thucydides chronicled, rising powers (like Athens then, or China now) and incumbent powers (like Sparta, or the United States) have usually ended up in a fight to the death, mainly because each cannot help playing on the worst fears of the other. “When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen,” Allison wrote in an essay for TheAtlantic.com last year.
The idea Allison was getting across—that managing relations between the United States and China is enormously important, and also very complex, and not guaranteed to turn out well—is built into the themes Henry Kissinger expressed to Jeffrey Goldberg in the interview in that same issue, and that I was explaining in my article, and that every U.S. president from Nixon through Obama has reflected upon and, with some variations, built into his policy toward China, the Koreas, Japan, Asia, and the world as a whole.
Reduced to three elements, this outlook would be:
Relations with China really matter, for each country’s interests and for the world’s;
They’re very complex and less obvious than they seem, in part because the Chinese government sees the world differently from the U.S. government in some important ways; and
If poorly managed, they can lead to great danger, even the unlikely-but-conceivable disaster of military showdown. This is another way of stating the first point, with emphasis on the downside.
In his press conference yesterday, President Obama lightly touched on several of these points, while talking about the entities we usually refer to as “Taiwan” (the Republic of China, HQ in Taipei) and “China” (the People’s Republic of China, HQ in Beijing). Here is what he said, with emphasis added:
There has been a longstanding agreement essentially between China and the United States, and to some degree the Taiwanese, which is to not change the status quo. Taiwan operates differently than mainland China does. China views Taiwan as part of China, but recognizes that it has to approach Taiwan as an entity that has its own ways of doing things.
The Taiwanese have agreed that as long as they’re able to continue to function with some degree of autonomy, that they won’t charge forward and declare independence. And that status quo, although not completely satisfactory to any of the parties involved, has kept the peace and allowed the Taiwanese to be a pretty successful economy and—of people who have a high degree of self-determination.
What I understand for China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of One China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through the consequences because the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues.
They won’t even treat it the way they issues around the South China Sea, where we've had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of how they see themselves.
And their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant. That doesn't mean that you have to adhere to everything that's been done in the past, but you have to think it through and have planned for potential reactions that they may engage in.
And now we have Donald Trump, five weeks away from being president but determined to put himself in the middle of U.S.-China relations as he has everything else. (Please see update after the jump)
As a general principle of life, I’m skeptical of claims that begin, “Oh, this is too complex, leave it to the experts.” Usually there is a simple way to convey the essence of an issue. But the simple way to state the reality of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations is that they are very complex and the product of decades’ worth of trade-offs and understandings, and that they are much easier to destroy than they were to create and sustain.
The joke about Homer Simpson, as the lovably incompetent operator at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, is that he had no idea of the complexity of what he was dealing with—or the potential consequences of his blunders. It’s not that everything in the world is more complex than it seems; it’s that nuclear plants are more complex, and dangerous. So too in dealings with China.
I can tell you that virtually everyone on the Chinese, North America, Asian and ASEAN, etc. front of U.S.-Chinese relations has a similar dread about Trump’s tweet-based “policy” toward China. Of course any aspect of U.S. policy should be up for re-examination, including this one. But Trump appears to have no idea what he is dealing with, what it has taken to make the relationship as stable as it has been, or what it could mean for it to go awry.
In the sequence leading to this latest tweet, we see an example of the latter point:
Trump challenges and provokes the Chinese, with a literally unprecedented gesture toward Taiwan that—as Obama pointed out, and as Nixon, Reagan, and either of the Bushes, plus Kissinger would have confirmed—challenges what China’s leaders consider the irreducible heart of their national identity;
Once Chinese officials determine that he’s not just kidding (the initial press reaction noted that Trump was still a private citizen, soon followed by editorials saying that he was “speaking like a child”), the leaders get their back up, and take their own unprecedented step of seizing this maritime drone;
And then Trump, who as president-elect has been the major force provoking China, responds in today’s raise-the-stakes way.
I do not believe the United States and China are likely to go to war. There are too many buffers on each side; too many many positive linkages; too much awareness on the Chinese side of U.S. relative military advantages—and on both sides of the potential risks.
But if historians and citizens look back on our era as the transition point, at which 40 years of relatively successful management of U.S.-China relations gave way to a reckless focus on grievances and differences,tweets like the one today will be part of their sad record.
By moving forward with the Supreme Court confirmation, the president is giving lawmakers little space to carve out an independent identity that could help them win reelection.
President Donald Trump demands loyalty, but isn’t so quick to return it. Republican members of Congress have passed his bills, rationalized his behavior, kept him in power. Now, with a new Supreme Court vacancy, some of the GOP senators who risked the most in tethering themselves to Trump sorely need his help keeping them in power. He isn't guaranteed to deliver.
Trump tweeted today that he’ll announce his nominee at the White House on Saturday, and he’s said that he wants a vote to take place before the November 3 election. That could spell trouble for swing-state Republican senators in tough reelection fights, such as Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado. They have one obvious lifeline: Voters could split their tickets, backing Joe Biden for president and supporting Republicans down-ballot. But Trump is making that prospect a lot less likely. A fierce confirmation fight over the conservative replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg may only reinforce purely partisan voting patterns.
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concludes an era of faith in courts as partners in the fight for progress and equality.
The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ends an incredible legal career, one that advanced gender equality and inspired millions. RBG, as she became popularly known, was, like Thurgood Marshall before her, one of the handful of justices who, through their work as lawyers fighting for justice, can truly be said to have earned their spot on the judicial throne. But the outpouring of grief that has followed her death is not just for the passing of a revered figure in American law but also for the end of an important force in American society: the liberal faith in the Supreme Court.
This faith is more recent than many people recognize. A century ago, the biggest critics of the federal judiciary were on the left, and for good reason. For most of its history, the Supreme Court was the most conservative of the three branches of government, consistently blocking, or at least delaying, efforts at social, political, and economic reform. From Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Court upheld the subordination of racial minorities, to Lochner, which denied the government the ability to regulate much of economic life, the Court epitomized what William F. Buckley would later identify as the conservative credo: the impulse to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” By the Progressive Era and the Great Depression, it was widely held that the Supreme Court could only hinder, not help, the cause of reform.
Trump says he isn’t preparing. Biden’s aides see debates as boxes to check. But many Democrats remain nervous.
Last weekend, Philippe Reines walked over to Ron Klain’s house in Washington, D.C., to hand off his Donald Trump outfit: the suit, the shoes with the lifts, the shirt, the long red tie, the cufflinks. Just in case. When the former Hillary Clinton aide stored the outfit in a bag after playing Trump in debate prep four years ago, a part of him thought it might one day be in her presidential library.
Klain ran Clinton’s debate prep, and he’s doing it again this year for Joe Biden. Klain has a rule against discussing the process, but he did tell me that no one is going to be putting on the outfit this year. The former vice president doesn’t like mock debates—he prefers to read research briefings and have a collection of aides fire questions at him.
The new coronavirus seems so strange because it has our full attention in a way most viruses don’t.
Last Monday, whenI called the cardiologist Amy Kontorovich in the late morning, she apologized for sounding tired. “I’ve been in my lab infecting heart cells with SARS-CoV-2 since 6 a.m. this morning,” she said.
That might seem like an odd experiment for a virus that spreads through the air, and primarily infects the lungs and airways. But SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, can also damage the heart. That much was clear in the early months of the pandemic, when some COVID-19 patients would be hospitalized with respiratory problems and die from heart failure. “Cardiologists have been thinking about this since March,” said Kontorovich, who is based at Mount Sinai. “Data have been trickling in.”
One giant psychology experiment explains why many people seem like they don’t care about the deaths of the elderly.
Sometime this week, alone on a hospital bed, an American died. The coronavirus had invaded her lungs, soaking them in fluid and blocking the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that makes up our every breath. Her immune system’s struggle to fight back might have sparked an overreaction called a cytokine storm, which shreds even healthy tissue. The doctors tried everything, but they couldn’t save her, and she became the 200,000th American taken by COVID-19—at least according to official counts.
In reality, the COVID-19 death toll probably passed 200,000 some time ago. And yet “the photos of body bags have not had the same effect in the pandemic” as after other mass-casualty events such as Hurricane Katrina, says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies disasters. “Is our national empathy—our care and love and concern for one another—at such a low level that we are not truly feeling, in our bones, in our hearts, and in our souls, the magnitude of the loss?”
The Democratic nominee insists that he can restore bipartisan comity on Capitol Hill. GOP senators suggest otherwise.
On Sunday, Joe Biden made a personal appeal to Republican senators considering whether to hold a vote on President Donald Trump’s anticipated Supreme Court nominee, asking them to wait for the result of November’s election before filling the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s spot.
“Please, follow your conscience,” Biden said. “Don’t go there. Uphold your constitutional duty, your conscience; let the people speak.”
This was a test, and the results came quickly. This morning, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah announced that he supports taking a vote on the nominee when the nomination comes before the Senate, and will determine his vote based on her qualifications—almost certainly a yes. That likely gives Republicans the votes they need to confirm the nominee.
Anne Helen Petersen, the author of the new book Can’t Even, traces some of a generation’s malaise back to its upbringing.
The writer Anne Helen Petersen’s new book is primarily about “burnout,” a condition endemic to the Millennial generation that she describes as a persistent “sensation of dull exhaustion” and “the feeling that you’ve optimized yourself into a work robot.” Expanding on a widely read BuzzFeedNews article from two years ago, Petersen follows lines of cultural and economic inquiry in an effort to identify the root causes of this generational malaise.
But her book, titled Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, is also about parenting. It is about how many Baby Boomers’ hands-on, sometimes overbearing approach to parenting was the product of the anxious economic milieu that they came of age in and how many Millennials’ overbooked upbringings set them up for burnout later in life. This hardly describes the experience of every child of the 1980s and ’90s, but this “intensive” parenting style was practiced widely, and not just by the middle-class parents who pioneered it. (It has since become a nationwide ideal across race and class.)
Democrats might crush Republicans in November. With a 6–3 conservative Supreme Court majority, abortion rights could still be decimated.
Friday was a perfect early-autumn evening in Washington, D.C., less than 50 days away from the election. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the Susan B. Anthony List, arguably the most powerful anti-abortion group in Washington, had wrapped up her day on Capitol Hill. She and her kids packed cheese and crackers and headed to the lawn outside the Supreme Court building, a majestic spot for a picnic. Dannenfelser’s phone rang—it was one of her staffers calling strangely late for a Friday. He had news.
Call it coincidence. Call it fate. “I’ve literally never sat on the lawn at the Supreme Court,” Dannenfelser told me. But in the moment when she found out that the pro-life movement may be about to achieve everything activists have been working toward since 1973, when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the United States, Dannenfelser was literally gazing upon the institution she has worked so hard to influence. The thought of victory so close at hand “makes my heart race and my spirit soar,” she said.
The typical path to parenthood didn’t work for David Jay, a founder of the asexual movement. So he designed his own household—and is trying to show others what is possible.
David Jay is the oldest of 12 cousins on one side of his family and the third-oldest of 24 cousins on the other. As a kid, family to Jay meant having a lot of people around, a feeling of community, and crucially, a sense of permanence, that these people would always be in his life. Later, as an adult living in collective housing, he could access the feeling of family with those around him, but the permanence was gone. His roommates started finding romantic partners, having children, and dispersing. Jay had always wanted his own family with kids—and had known, for almost as long, that he wouldn’t be able to build one the usual way.
Jay is the founder of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network and one of the most prominent people in the asexual movement. (Asexual people, or aces, don’t experience sexual attraction, though many do have sex and form romantic relationships.) After starting AVEN as a freshman at Wesleyan University in 2001, Jay spent years explaining asexuality to the public, speaking at events and talking to the press. As he grew older, the questions on his mind moved beyond identity and attraction to issues of parenting and family life.