On Friday, President-Elect Donald Trump angered a vast swath of the foreign policy community when he held a congratulatory phone call with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ying-wen. It represented the first presidential-level phone call between leaders of the United States and Taiwan since 1979. Taiwan’s status has been a diplomatic hot-button issue for decades, with China claiming Taiwan as part of China, and Taiwan defending its own independence. The United States has deliberately embraced a policy of vagueness in order to avoid escalating conflict.
James Fallows of The Atlantic tweeted:
It is hard to overstate the bottomless pig-ignorance & recklessness, of this step.— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) December 2, 2016
Presidents from Nixon onward had careful PRC/ROC protocol https://t.co/s9EqhOjoT8
Fallows wrote a piece for this month’s issue of the magazine in which he summarized the last 40 years of American policy:
From one administration to the next, it has been built on these same elements: ever greater engagement with China; steady encouragement of its modernization and growth; forthright disagreement where the two countries’ economic interests or political values clash; and a calculation that Cold War–style hostility would be far more damaging than the difficult, imperfect partnership the two countries have maintained.
It is unclear if the Trump phone call signals an increasing willingness to buck such niceties. If it represents ignorance and Trump has to walk it back, that would be a dramatically stupid move – it would undermine burgeoning American relations with China, then require a walkback that would damage relations with Taiwan and make America appear weak. If the move represents a Trumpian outreach to Taiwan on behalf of his businesses – Trump’s business has plans to construct a series of luxury hotels in Taiwan – that’s a problem, too.
But if this is a well-thought-out piece of foreign policy, then it’s a change that conservatives could welcome. China has been feeling its oats in the South China Sea for years under President Obama. They’ve been propping up the North Korean prison state for decades. They’ve been threatening Taiwan since 1949. Let’s hope that Trump isn’t just winging it.