A ten-minute phone call between US president-elect Donald Trump and president Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has generated much hullaballoo. Or to be more precise, the histrionic reporting in its aftermath by the American media certainly seems to have done so.
A glance at the comical transcripts of Trump’s earlier conversation with the Pakistani prime minister reveals how seriously to weigh these phone sessions. (Hint: not very). But let’s allow that this could be a deliberate act on the part of the incoming leader, with some measure of symbolic value.
The vituperative comments now issuing from the ranks of political journalists and foreign affairs aficionados illustrate a disappointing and problematic mindset.
First, we should never run around shrieking about China’s “hurt feelings.” Self-styled politicos sometimes seem to care far more about perceived slights than Beijing itself does. Applying knee-jerk censorship on behalf of China—without even waiting for a request—legitimates the Communist regime’s claims in advance, meaning they have already won.
Furthermore, in taking this call—from Taiwan’s first democratically elected female president, one might add—Trump did not violate any deep or profound canons of decency. He simply acknowledged the leader of a society that has long had friendly ties to the United States. Does this merit so much apocalyptic flak?
The American government’s diplomatic protocols vis-à-vis the Taiwanese government, where the “president, national security adviser, secretary of state, secretary of defense” avoid directly contacting their counterparts across the Pacific, are not immutable laws of the universe. They are a set of practices unilaterally decided upon by the Carter administration in 1979 when, unbeknownst to the US congress or our nation’s longtime ally in Asia, the White House decided to drop official recognition of Taipei in favor of Beijing. Procedures for this controversial switch were then cobbled together by people—human beings making improvisational choices.
These choices have engendered critique in ensuing decades. This year alone, commentators recommended officially upgrading ties in a range of ways (see: John Bolton, current Trump advisor) and substantially restructuring relations with Taiwan to thaw what Dan Blumenthal has characterized as a “frozen” “Cold War legacy.”
When running for president against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan was a strong proponent of improving ties between Washington DC and Taipei. He opposed the humiliations and “petty practices” Carter had visited upon Taiwan’s diplomats and citizens.
The future Oval Office holder recognized that the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by a shocked Congress in an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner, was the dominant framework defining and legally mandating ties—and under the TRA, substantive relations could certainly flourish.
Winston Lord, an eminent China expert who was instrumental in opening contacts between the US and China in the early 1970s, and later the US ambassador, commented on Trump’s phone call, “I have no problem with his talking to Madame Tsai; Taiwan is a good friend and although our relations are unofficial, I think it’s important to maintain close bonds with Taiwan.”
The former head of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), for all intents and purposes the ambassador to Taiwan at the de facto embassy, William Stanton, recently encouraged the incoming administration to “show greater openness and flexibility in allowing Taiwan’s representatives to meet with US officials on a more regular basis and at a higher level.” He decried how “Washington lawyers created most of the self-imposed restrictions on official Taiwan travel and contact in an overly zealous effort to show that we had indeed broken diplomatic relations.”
Conditions are different today than when Carter tried to respond to the threat of the Soviet Union by currying favor with Beijing. Instead of jumping reflexively to uphold a dated set of rules and criticize this event, why not consider Taiwan issues on their merits today? Indeed, various protocol changes have been rolled out over the years, not necessarily with much fanfare. In 2002, for example, a new law allowed “government officials and active duty military personnel to be assigned to AIT… without having to retire first” or go through what Stanton calls, “the charade of a temporary resignation.” Browser updates should not trigger meltdown warnings. Protocol is, after all, but a small part of the larger question of cross-Strait strategy.
It’s interesting to note that when president Obama genuinely altered a long-standing American policy on Cuba by restoring relations that had been severed since 1961, he was lauded as a groundbreaking leader. The artificial furor over Trump’s call with Tsai seems less about the substance or foreign policy implications, and more about taking opportunistic political potshots at Trump, over an issue the media had reported upon very little, until now.
Contrary to Trump’s horrifying suggestion that our NATO allies should cough up more protection money to guarantee America’s commitment, the president-elect is—for once—actually sticking up for our democratic allies. Is that something to bemoan?
Estonia is probably cheering: instead of selling out a small, democratic nation to its overbearing authoritarian neighbor, the incorrigible Tweeter-in-Chief has done the polite and decent thing, for a change. His transition team arranged a friendly call where Trump accepted (and extended) congratulations, and exchanged opinions with a world leader whose cooperation is vital to American interests. Since then, the president-elect has kept a cool head and refused to bow to the hysteria.
Of course, Trump’s mercurial nature means he could easily flip-flop, and Taiwan might find itself cut loose in the future. But when the political class slavishly jumps to the defense of a status quo with China that has already moved on, it reveals a severe lack of imagination. Instead of pouncing on this issue to flog Trump for his perceived ignorance, can we not take some satisfaction that decency prevailed in this outcome?
Virtually none of the reporters who are piling on to score political points previously covered the Taiwan issue, yet today they scold the Trump administration to demonstrate their own superiority on foreign matters. When this happens, the only people being hurt are the citizens of democracies who have been seeking assurance from their friends and attempting to peacefully grow their international space.