December 5, 2016
On Friday, Donald Trump shocked the China-watching world when news broke that he had spoken on the phone to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. The call was remarkable not for its content—Tsai’s office said she told Trump she hoped the United States “would continue to support more opportunities for Taiwan to participate in international issues.” Rather, it was the way in which the call, by implicitly recognizing Tsai as a head of state, seemed to presage a radically different Taiwan policy. Is this beneficial for U.S. interests, for Taiwan, and for global stability? —The Editors
Much of the American and international commentary on U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has focused on whether it was a strategic move or a foolish gaffe and its potential repercussions for U.S.-China relations.
It is crucial to understand not just the perspectives of Washington and Beijing but also that of Taipei. To begin with, although de jure independence would be desirable to many in the Republic of China on Taiwan, which already enjoys de facto independence, the Taiwan government is not seeking to declare independence for the obvious reason—the near certainty that Beijing would fire missiles against the island. Many Taiwanese are pragmatic in thinking about their country’s future and do not favor provoking a war. This point seems to be lost, however, on some Western media commentators who unnecessarily caution America not to recognize Taiwan as an independent state.
What Taipei seeks, at least in the foreseeable future, is to deepen its relations with the U.S. (and with other states and international organizations generally) in a functional, meaningful way. This is a reasonable, and in fact modest, goal. Contact between Taiwan’s democratically elected leaders and their counterparts in countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Taiwan has long been severely suppressed as a result of Beijing’s pressures. Taiwan’s leaders have to maneuver even for brief “transit” stops in the U.S. to conduct very limited direct exchanges with merely a few Congressmen and analysts.
Yet, effective exchanges between Taipei and other states and international organizations are important not only to Taipei but also to those that want to cooperate with Taiwan in political, economic, social, and cultural realms. The U.S., while not formally recognizing Taiwan, must find ways to conduct regular, high-level discussion with the Taiwan government for their mutual benefit. Such practice is not without precedent. From 1955 to 1970, Washington and Beijing held a series of ambassadorial-level talks in Geneva and Warsaw regarding the repatriation of nationals even though the two sides then had no diplomatic relations. (I thank Jerome A. Cohen for this point.)
Similar innovative efforts should be considered with regard to Taiwan. For example, the proposed Taiwan Travel Act introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last September rightly points out that it should be the U.S. policy 1. to permit high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the U.S. and to meet with U.S. officials and 2. to permit the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office—Taiwan’s de facto embassy—to conduct official business in the U.S. More support is needed, as a similar bill in 2013 failed. In an encouraging step, the U.S. House on Friday passed a bill that for the first time authorizes senior U.S.-Taiwan military exchanges.
More broadly, Taiwan, with its vibrant civil society, has much to contribute to global governance in an increasingly interconnected world. However, Taiwan’s outreach has long been hampered by China’s campaigns to pressure other countries and international organizations not to allow Taiwan’s participation. Examples abound. Just last month, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) rejected Taiwan’s first application in 32 years to attend Interpol’s annual meeting as an observer, although Taiwan can and should play a significant role in the global fight against transnational crime with its able law enforcement forces and advanced information technology. A few weeks later, a Taiwanese NGO dedicated to the research of rare diseases, which had been invited to take part in a U.N.-affiliated meeting, was not even permitted to enter the U.N. building.
One positive thing that might come out of the fuss over the Trump-Tsai call would be much greater public attention to the predicament confronted by Taiwan and to the urgency of updating U.S. policy to expand communication with Taiwan and, more broadly, expanding Taiwan’s well-deserved participation in global affairs.
I do not know if Mr. Trump has read Analects, but if Confucius had a Twitter account, he might caution the president-elect that “Going too far is as bad as not going far enough” (過猶不及, guòyóubùjí). “Recalibrate,” as used in the prompt for this ChinaFile conversation, suggests a careful adjustment, not a rash, radical departure from current practice. While the start of a new administration is a fitting time to reassess the status quo of U.S. policy towards Taiwan, the perils of impetuous action far outweigh any potential benefits of hastily shaking things up.
I join Ms. Chen, above, in welcoming the U.S. government to consider “innovative efforts” with respect to policy towards Taiwan. But any such creative efforts require space to incubate and would be undermined, if not demolished, by a Twitter-based foreign policy.
A thoughtful recalibration of U.S. policy requires not only time but also people who are knowledgeable about Taiwan. One consequence of China’s opening to the world has been that many younger American scholars obtain language training in the mainland instead of Taiwan (myself among them). This has tremendous benefits in terms of American understanding of the People’s Republic of China; it has, however, diverted American students from Taiwan. This is a mistake. The most knowledgeable American experts on Taiwan come from the generation that often spent significant time living in Taiwan as they honed their language skills.
The flurry of interest in Taiwan over the past few days has brought into sharp relief how necessary it is for the U.S. to maintain a deep bench of Taiwan experts. Hopefully a silver lining of the kerfuffle over “The Call” (and here’s hoping that history will prove this episode to be a mere passing fuss) will be a renewed interest in academic exchanges and research projects involving Taiwan.