- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
On Monday, China said it “firmly opposed” Sunday’s meeting between Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Cruz and Tsai reportedly discussed “arms sales, diplomatic exchanges and economic relations,” while Abbott’s conversation was more focused on agriculture and gas trade. Abbott also presented a culturally offensive gift.
While Tsai stuck to an appropriate vase, Abbott gave Tsai “a clock bearing the Texas state seal.” In Mandarin, the phrase “give a clock” sounds like “attend a funeral,” and so giving a clock is, per Foreign Policy Asia editor James Palmer, “basically the Chinese equivalent of ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.’” In other words, it is highly taboo.
In fact, in 2015, Baroness Susan Kramer, then-British minister of state for transport, gave Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je a pocket watch on a visit to Taiwan. Though Ko noted that he did not believe in such superstitions, he also joked that he might sell it to a scrap metal dealer. Kramer apologized, insisting that she did not know of the taboo. “I had no idea a gift like this could be seen as anything other than positive: In the U.K. a watch is precious — because nothing is more important than time,” she said.
Tsai seems to have let the gaffe slide. Perhaps she is not superstitious, or perhaps she is using it to keep track of the time until U.S. President-elect Trump comes into office and the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship changes, perhaps dramatically.
The meeting comes weeks after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump offended Chinese officials by speaking with Tsai on the phone. It appears Trump may intend to use the “One China” policy as a bargaining chip with China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, in doing so, “they are lifting a rock only to drop it on their feet,.” China, as recently as Sunday, warned it would take revenge for any U.S. cessation of the One China policy, though it did not clarify what that revenge would entail.
Nevertheless, Cruz replied to China’s request that he not meet with Tsai by saying that Taiwan is “an ally we are legally bound to defend. The Chinese do not give us veto power over those with whom they meet. We will continue to meet with anyone, including the Taiwanese, as we see fit.”
Leaving aside that using Taiwan as a bargaining chip may not, in fact, be the best way to establish the long-term security of Taiwan, this Texas meeting raises a few questions. First, why is Cruz, whose father Trump accused of being involved in the assassination of U.S. President John Kennedy, charged with carrying out this renewed relationship with Taiwan? Second, if relations were to be renegotiated, would that not be at the federal, and not, say, Texas level? And if so, why was Abbott there? Because it probably wasn’t for his cultural sensitivity.
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