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Sino-US relations

America’s policy on Taiwan and China needs to change with the times

Syaru Shirley Lin says the commotion over the Trump-Tsai phone call has exposed the US challenge in forging stable relations with both the vibrant democracy that Taiwan has become and the assertive China of today

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 4:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 7:27pm

On December 2, US President-elect Donald Trump accepted a phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan to congratulate him on his electoral victory. In his tweets after the call, Trump referred to Tsai as “the President of Taiwan” and wrote that he didn’t see why the US could sell arms to Taiwan but he should not accept a call from Taiwan’s president.

This sent ripples of alarm all over the world, especially among the policy experts in Washington, Beijing and even Taipei. The call threw into question whether long-standing American policy towards Taiwan will now be changed.

In 1979, the US established normal diplomatic relations with China and derecognised Taiwan. The US also “acknowledged the Chinese position” that Taiwan is part of China. That same year, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which allowed for unofficial relations with Taiwan to continue even under the new “One China” policy. Nonetheless, no American president had ever spoken to a Taiwanese president since.

One phone call won’t change US policy on Taiwan – or relations with China

From the start, these arrangements were not seen as a long-term strategy but as a way to preserve stability while encouraging the two sides to reach a resolution, presumably unification. The Shanghai Communiqué jointly issued by the US and China in 1972 during president Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China was based on the assumption that “Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China”.

However, since Taiwan’s democratisation nearly three decades ago, fewer and fewer Taiwanese accept this premise – only 3 per cent of Taiwanese polled in a widely recognised university survey believe they are exclusively “Chinese” and only 1.5 per cent support “unification as soon as possible”. The consolidation of a distinctive Taiwanese identity means that the prospect of peaceful unification on terms acceptable to both sides – America’s consistent policy goal – has been greatly reduced.

Since 1979, Taiwan has become a vibrant democracy with a dynamic civil society. By contrast, Washington has continued with the same “dual deterrence” policy to dissuade both Beijing and Taipei from trying to change the status quo unilaterally. In many ways, China and Taiwan have substantially changed over the years, while Washington has maintained a policy first defined almost four decades ago, hoping that neither side rocks the boat.

Nonetheless, as young Taiwanese become ever more insistent on autonomy rather than unification and as Beijing becomes more authoritarian politically and assertive militarily, some Washington policy experts have started advocating a change in policy – either stepping up security and economic relations with Taiwan, or else abandoning Taiwan in exchange for concessions from China. Trump has not indicated which position he favours.

The Trump-Tsai phone call is actually a useful reminder that the gaps among the three sides are growing and should be bridged

While the Trump-Tsai phone call was unwelcome to many, it is actually a useful reminder that the gaps among the three sides are growing and should be bridged in order to maintain stability in the region and the world.

However, pundits from all three sides have overreacted to the call, prematurely concluding that it presages a major policy change. Over the past three decades, there have been several instances where a move by one of the three actors has been interpreted as permanently changing the status quo. For instance, China fired ballistic missiles in the waters around the island in 1995-1996 after then Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui visited Cornell University. And some American presidents had called for increases in America’s diplomatic and military ties to Taiwan. But in the end, not much has changed.

Fortunately, unlike so many observers, Beijing has not overreacted to the phone call. Although Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) has called it a “shenanigan by the Taiwan side”, this was consistent with Beijing putting the blame on Taiwan when there is tension. The Chinese foreign ministry followed up by requesting that Washington adhere to the “One China” policy.

But rather than mending fences, on December 4 – two days after the call – Trump further defended his action by rebuking China in tweets for its currency manipulation, trade protectionism and military build-up.

Cheerleaders for Trump say that he is fully aware of the consequences of his action and the call was planned well in advance. They believe he wanted to show that the future leader of the free world can accept any call he wants. His senior advisers Ed Fuelner and Peter Navarro and incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus are sympathetic to Taiwan. Other Republicans who want more support for Taiwan also approved of the call. Some of Trump’s top candidates for secretary of state, including Jon Huntsman, a former ambassador to China, are very familiar with the issue and would probably advocate an adjustment in US policy.

Finding common interest is the only way forward for China and the US

While keenly aware that Beijing would be irritated, many Trump supporters would argue that Taiwan is a democracy and an important member of the global political economy, and it deserves more respect. They believe Trump intended to show that he could stand up to Beijing by departing from past practice and accepting a call from an ally.

Trump’s detractors disagree. They have charged that Trump does not understand the complexity of foreign policy issues and has been having calls with foreign leaders around the world without consulting experts. They say he is a showman who makes statements without considering the consequences. They fear that what Trump has started will inevitability provoke China’s wrath and could escalate to a new cold war.

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Rather than jumping to the conclusion that the call would be a trigger for conflict with China, we must watch to see whether it foreshadows a major change in Washington’s policy.

Having been excluded from many preferential trade agreements because of Beijing’s objection, Taiwan needs to become more economically competitive by joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership grouping or signing a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement with the US. But neither of these may be possible under Trump, given his scepticism about free trade agreements.

On security, Trump has indicated that American allies need to pay more for their own defence, which will put pressure on Taiwan, which has underinvested militarily for years. Nevertheless, during this year’s Republican National Convention, Trump’s advisers reassured Taiwan of continued arms sales, and some have indicated that the US should increase its naval deployments in the Western Pacific.

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There may be more contradictory messages emerging from the Trump transition team that will keep both the Chinese and the Taiwanese guessing about American intentions. But, eventually, the Trump administration will have to develop a more coherent policy towards Taiwan, which has not been reviewed since the Clinton administration. That policy will have to adjust to the significant changes that have been occurring in Taiwan and China, while maintaining America’s long-standing interest in stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Syaru Shirley Lin teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Virginia and is the author of Taiwan’s China Dilemma