On December 2, 2016, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen made a telephone call to US President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his election victory. Trump took the call and they spoke for ten minutes. Tsai mentioned the good relations Taiwan has long had with the United States and expressed her hope for continued close ties. By all accounts it was a friendly conversation and no issue of urgency was discussed.
But the call turned viral. The US media—the large majority of which hate Trump with a passion and wish him the worst—attacked him for everything from breaking diplomatic protocol to wanting to start a war with China. The frenzy went on for days. Specifically, media mavens castigated Trump for calling Tsai the “President of Taiwan.” They also made issue of the fact that no President-elect has ever had a telephone conversation with a top leader of Taiwan.
Why Tsai Made the Call
Tsai won Taiwan’s quadrennial executive/legislative election in January against two other candidates. Her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a majority in the legislative election for the first time ever. Tsai and her party thus had a clear mandate to govern. After the election, however, she faced serious headwinds on issues and various contradictions that made her presidency a very tough job.
First and foremost, Taiwan’s economy was growing at a meager 1 percent at the time. Moreover, because Taiwan was highly sensitive to the state of the international economy, which had slowed considerably, the prospects for better growth were not promising. Experts were forecasting less than 2 percent growth for the next four years.
Tsai’s second major problem, arguably as big or bigger than the first, was her and the DPP’s bitter relationship with China. The DPP is pro-independence and anti-China. That is Tsai’s image also. After the election, they asserted that China would have to “come around” to face the reality that the DPP was in power and make concessions. Some members of her party said that Taiwan did not need China economically; some even said Taiwan would be better off without commercial ties to China.
Yet Taiwan’s economic health depends on China. The facts are: Up to 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports go to China. Taiwan’s investments in China have reached USD 500 billion, and 60 percent of Taiwan’s production capacity is there. There are a million of Taiwan’s residents in China doing business or visiting at any one time; that is nearly 10 percent of Taiwan’s population. The two are economically linked more closely than most members of the European Union.
Tsai openly supported Hillary Clinton. After the election, Tsai and the DPP looked for some means to rectify their miscalculation.
In any case, China did not “come around.” Rather, Chinese leaders took measures to punish Tsai and the DPP for rejecting the idea that Taiwan is legally part of China and for not supporting the “92 Consensus” (that was negotiated in 1992 to flexibly define their relationship). Beijing cut the number of its tourists going to Taiwan and began to interfere in production chains across the Taiwan Strait that hurt Taiwan’s most promising businesses. It began pressuring Taiwan’s pro-DPP companies operating in China. Plainly Taiwan felt the pressure. And it was going to get worse.
This, among other issues, had a seriously negative impact on Tsai’s popularity. Her ratings in the polls dropped to what some described as a “death cross” — when her disapproval rating became higher than her approval rating.
During the US Presidential election campaign, Tsai openly supported Hillary Clinton. Why? Hillary was hated in China. She had been to Taiwan to raise campaign money; so, she owed Taiwan. Some said because she was a woman. This was a big mistake. After Trump won the election, Tsai and the DPP looked for some means to rectify their miscalculation. This was critical; America was Taiwan’s protector.
Bringing all this into focus, a week before Tsai’s call to Trump, China’s Air Force dispatched several of its bombers (capable of carrying nuclear weapons) accompanied by fighter planes by and around Taiwan. This was without precedent. Tsai no doubt felt the heat. She was desperate. So, she decided to make a telephone call to Trump — though she was apparently so advised by some top US personages.
Trump’s Motives in Taking the Call
Several Western media outlets immediately suggested that Trump might had no motive. His speaking with Tsai, therefore, was not calculated or planned. In so doing, went the narrative, Trump committed a diplomatic faux pas: not considering that for 40 years, American Presidents did not do this in order to uphold America’s agreement that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China. But these media stories were soon scrapped. It was unreasonable to think that the President-elect took a telephone call that was not screened. Still the media said Trump had thrown a wrench in the cogs of the intricate machine of US-China relations. And, of course, that, news reporters said, was ominous.
Then the truth began to emerge: Donald knew Taiwan was a democratic ally and deserved to be treated with respect, which because of self-restraints imposed by the State Department that all recent Presidents adhered to, hadn’t been.
Also, there was a case of hypocrisy. The media had applauded President Barack Obama’s initiatives to mend relations with Cuba, which was still a dictatorship where human rights were trampled by the government. The liberal media also treated Fidel Castro, upon his recent passing, as a hero — turning a blind eye to the thousands or tens of thousands of his victims. Yet the President of Taiwan did not deserve to have her telephone call answered! Taiwan had friends in the United States. Trump won their sympathy and support.
On the other hand, one might even say that Donald had set a trap for the media and they had been ensnared. The Western media was obsessed with undermining Trump’s image to the degree that its fairness and professionalism were almost completely lacking. This was not a positive thing. The media carping was a hindrance to good US relations with Asia, and for peace and prosperity in the region.
Second was the matter of how Trump should, and would, deal with China as President. Right after November 8, the President-elect spoke to China’s President Xi Jinping. President Xi extended his congratulations. The two agreed that their countries should pursue close working relations. China’s media spoke highly of the new relationship. Top party officials even suggested that Trump’s “make America great again” and Xi’s “China dream” were similar.
President Xi’s aides, including Vice Premier Wang Yang, mentioned “major opportunities” for American companies to take advantage of USD 8 trillion in Chinese imports anticipated over the next five years. This wasn’t just palaver. China’s per capita GDP had increased 20 fold in the past quarter century. China’s middle class would account for 18 percent of global spending by 2030, compared to 7 percent for the US. The US Peterson Institute estimated a free-trade agreement between the US and China would generate 1.7 million new jobs in the United States.
Trump’s harsh words were met by a Chinese blowback, including some stern warnings. But this was China’s standard practice and did not seem all that serious.
Anyway, after Tsai’s telephone call, China responded calmly (unlike the Western media). Beijing said it was a “Taiwan trick” and blamed Tsai. But Trump went on to criticize China. He said he would not be dictated to by China. He again sounded the alarm over the US trade deficit with China. Trump apparently calculated that when he became President he might well be seen (by China among others) as a novice to be taken advantage of. President John F Kennedy was. President Jimmy Carter was. Other US Presidents were. He wanted to avoid that.
He also assumed that taking a tough negotiating stance with China might bear fruit. President Richard Nixon went to Beijing to negotiate their rapprochement while dropping bombs on China’s close ally, North Vietnam. Yet Nixon succeeded. President Ronald Reagan spoke about reestablishing diplomatic ties with Taiwan during the 1980 campaign. Yet he subsequently enjoyed good relations with China for the next eight years.
Trump’s advisors no doubt told him that Obama, during his first visit to China in November 2009, had sought to make China like him and didn’t have a clear negotiating agenda. As a result, he was suckered into agreeing to China’s “core interests” — which included Taiwan’s unification being a sine qua non. Obama regretted his blunder and accepted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Asia pivot and initiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement — both of which were ill-conceived and were patently anti-China, and failed.
By the end of Obama’s tenure, US relations with China had not been worse since before Nixon. According to advice from members of Trump’s transition team, being a wimp (which Trump was certainly not anyway) would not succeed with China.
Trump’s harsh words were met by Chinese blowback, including some stern warnings. But this was China’s standard practice and did not seem all that serious. Anyway, Trump remained popular among the Chinese masses. Chinese leaders appreciated his focus on business and his not delving into issues of China’s human rights and governance. They understood the US trade deficit with China was unsustainable. They were, in fact, already acting on that premise.
The Western media has yet to accept that Trump won the election. Or that Trump was a brilliant campaigner (perhaps a revolutionary one) and may well be an exceptional President. The media’s mindless bias against Trump has a malevolent impact on US relations with Asian countries. It should realize that soon.
Tsai was a hit at home with her telephone call. Will China punish her for that? Probably. Will she suffer? That is difficult to say. Certainly, the call does not resolve her many problems.
China is determined to “recover” Taiwan. Will it succeed? Given current trends, no doubt. But that is, or should be, a long-range objective for Chinese leaders. China has other matters that are more pressing. Taiwan is an issue that time may resolve; that would be better than going to war.
There is a pattern in US-China relations: During US election campaigns, relations with China sour but soon this changes with the realization that cordial relations are essential to solving global problems and much more. (Except for the Obama presidency when it was the other way around.)
Trump and Xi are both strong and dynamic leaders. They are unconventional in important ways. They need time to get to know each other and they will most probably get along well. They know they must, as so much depends on that.