Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called up US President-elect Donald Trump on 3 December to congratulate him on his victory. A statement from the Taiwan Presidential Office stated that the call lasted just over 10 minutes and that Tsai and Trump ‘shared views and ideals on governance, especially on promoting domestic economic development and strengthening national defense’ and ‘also exchanged views briefly on the situation in Asia’. Tsai ‘expressed the wish of strengthening [Taiwan-US] bilateral exchanges and contacts and establishing closer cooperation relations.
Trump Testing the Waters?
Taiwan has in the past congratulated the US president-elect in private or in writing but this is possibly the first time since 1979, the two sides have actually spoken over the phone. Taiwanese presidential spokesman Alex Huang said, ‘Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact.’
Trump also tweeted about the occasion saying, ‘The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!’. Following criticism on his action, he next tweeted, ‘Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.’ It is interesting to note that prior to mentioning Taiwan, he had last mentioned any foreign country in tweets only on 16 November, which was also the first time that he had done so following his victory. China was one among the seven foreign countries he specifically mentioned from whose leaders he said he had taken calls.
While it is easy to dismiss Trump’s actions as possibly a mistake or generally lacking in logic, some factors suggest that this might have been a calculated move, perhaps under the influence of his advisors. Trump has continued to receive calls from foreign leaders and on 3 December, he spoke in addition to the presidents of Afghanistan and the Philippines in addition to the Singaporean Prime Minister and so the fact that he tweeted about Taiwan specifically, after several days of not mentioning any foreign country is particularly significant. Further even though Tsai’s office itself did not mention it, a press release issued by the Trump transition team stated that, ‘President-elect Trump also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year’. Trump’s use of the expression ‘President of Taiwan’ multiple times is an added provocation to China.
At one go, it would seem that the US President-elect has sought to indicate a major shift in his approach to the China-Taiwan dyad in international relations. Not only did he not use the ‘official’ ‘President of ROC’ which could have at least been interpreted as conveying a semblance of ‘one China’ but by using ‘Taiwan’, he specifically breached one of the so-called ‘3 Noes’ between Taiwan and China themselves, of no support for ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China and one Taiwan’, something that even the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan has even talked of doing for a while now. The ‘3 Noes’, had first been officially accepted by the US when then President Bill Clinton visited Shanghai in July 1998 and confirmed the US as following a ‘one-China’ policy that had been absent in the Shanghai Communiqué between the US and China in 1972.
China’s Stays Cool. For Now.
China’s Foreign Ministry immediately ‘lodged solemn representations with the party concerned in the US’ following the Tsai-Trump conversation. However, it needs to be remembered that the there have been American reversals of position on Taiwan before, including the aforementioned Clinton statement and the Shanghai Communiqué. This then is therefore not something that should particularly surprise the Chinese. However, after decades of American acquiescence to the idea of ‘one-China’ and especially at a juncture where the Chinese see themselves as on the ascendant in terms of global political, economic and military strength, Beijing cannot have expected such a dramatic and obviously political statement from the US.
Chinese scholars and analysts have been tracking Trump with interest over the course of the US election campaign and there has been a sense of unease and confusion over the unpredictable nature of his comments and actions. Even so, the Tsai-Trump call must certainly have come as a surprise, if not a shock. Prominent Chinese scholars were quoted in the immediate aftermath of the Trump victory that it would dampen Tsai’s chances of pushing an agenda for Taiwanese independence on the assumption that Trump the businessman would be a pragmatic operator who would ‘reach a deal with China in exchange for U.S. estrangement from Taiwan’ Even if the US would continue to sell arms to Taiwan, this was more an economic consideration than in the nature of a military commitment according one Chinese was quoted suggesting. Another also pointed out that Tsai was betting on Hillary Clinton winning and had not developed ties with the Trump team during the election campaign.
Now that this has happened, it is unlikely that the message is lost on China or even if there was no message intended and this was all a classic case of Trump being Trump, the Chinese will nevertheless use this as the base from which they now make their assessments of and plans for a Trump presidency. A Global Times editorial said as much, ‘By answering Tsai’s call he may want to test how China would react and therefore prepare him for dealing with the country and gaining some advantage after he takes office.’
It is a sign of China’s realism and sophistication that its Foreign Minister Wang Yi refused to be flustered by the Tsai-Trump call into directly attacking Trump and instead focused his attack on the Taiwanese calling Tsai’s call a ‘small action/trick’ or ‘petty trick’ that ‘cannot change the ‘one China’ structure already formed by the international community’. The Global Times repeated some of Wang’s points but also appeared to suggest that Trump had made a stupid mistake since he was ‘not familiar with foreign relations’ before issuing a veiled threat, ‘If Trump wants to overstep the One-China principle, he will destroy Sino-US ties. That means the current pattern between Beijing and Washington as well as international order will be overturned.’
The larger Chinese problem might be the fact that there is and has always been a sentiment in the US Congress of Taiwan requiring greater support from the US, including in the military domain. In fact, the US House of Representatives had just the day before on 2 December passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 containing for the first time a provision for senior military exchanges with Taiwan. American administrations hitherto have kept this sentiment in check – the Obama administration in fact, immediately issued a statement following the Tsai-Trump call that the US ‘remain[ed] firmly committed to our one-China policy’. However, President Trump might be more amenable to testing Chinese limits and using Taiwan as a bargaining ploy.
 One of these appears to be John Bolton (see http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-real-risk-behind-trumps-taiwan-call)