President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2 rattled international audiences. The United States switched diplomatic relations to Beijing in 1979, acknowledging the primacy of the One China policy, and there has not been an American presidential phone call to the president of Taiwan since. Experts are warning that Beijing will come back hard at the Trump team. They are probably right. Others have noted that this will inevitably raise conflict-of-interest questions about the Trump Organization’s desire to get into the Taoyuan Aerotropolis urban development project in Taiwan.
However, some historical perspective is also necessary. This breach of protocol and custom is not unprecedented. In 1980-1981, the incoming Reagan administration promised to renormalize relations with Taiwan and then invited senior Taiwanese officials to the official inaugural celebrations. Beijing was livid. Those early and controversial overtures to Taiwan reflected Reagan’s own close ties to the leadership in Taipei dating back to his time as governor of California. They, like Trump’s call, were brokered and led by the new National Security Council (NSC) team under Richard Allen before the secretary of state or his senior deputies were in place.
Over the subsequent months, Allen and the NSC engaged in open warfare with Al Haig and the State Department over Taiwan policy, with Allen pushing to sell fighter jets to Taiwan to counter China and Haig pushing to sell fighter jets to China to counter the Soviets. Within 18 months, both men had been pushed out of the administration and Reagan issued the “Third” U.S.-China Communique, essentially reconfirming the original parameters of U.S.-China relations established in the first two communiques (but with an additional side set of “six assurances” to Taipei promising the United States would never go over Taiwan’s head to Beijing on issues critical to Taiwan’s security).
Thinking it had Reagan on his back heels, Beijing sent a senior envoy to push the U.S. president to make further concessions and “do something about the Taiwan Relations Act.” As George Schultz told me for my forthcoming book (By More than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783), Reagan stared at the envoy and said, “you’re right … we need to toughen it up!” Beijing stopped pushing and the Reagan administration enjoyed a far more productive and stable U.S.-PRC relationship than his predecessors, while simultaneously deepening trust with Taiwan.
Will Trump’s phone call lead to a similar shift down the road? I am certainly sympathetic to the desire to show more respect to Taiwan’s democratically elected leader, but I think the new Trump administration will find it difficult to sustain this first move when there are so many other thorny issues they will have to work with Beijing.
We may see a repeat of the China-Taiwan intramural fireworks set off by the first Reagan team, with the early starters at the NSC pushing hard on Taiwan before the State appointees try to assert broader foreign policy interests. Of course, that still depends on who becomes secretary of state. So, as with all things Trump these days, it is probably too soon to draw long-term conclusions from this first phone call. All one can say is: kudos for caring about Taiwan, Mr. President-elect, but history suggests it is probably better to have an overall Asia strategy in place before picking your first fights with Beijing.
Photo credit: BRIAN BLANCO/Getty Images
Correction, Dec. 5, 2016: A previous version of this article read, “The United States switched diplomatic relations to Taiwan in 1979.” The United States switched relations from Taipei to Beijing that year.