Taiwan’s President Says She Just Really Wanted to Congratulate Trump

Tsai Ing-wen says her unprecedented phone call doesn't signal a policy shift, but has she thought through all the risks?

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - JANUARY 16:  (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Tsai Ing-wen (C), waves to supporters at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters after her election victory on January 16, 2016 in Taipei, Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen, the chairwoman of the opposition DPP, has won the presidential election to become the Taiwan's first female president.  (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
TAIPEI, TAIWAN - JANUARY 16: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Tsai Ing-wen (C), waves to supporters at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters after her election victory on January 16, 2016 in Taipei, Taiwan. Tsai Ing-wen, the chairwoman of the opposition DPP, has won the presidential election to become the Taiwan's first female president. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

After days of frenzied speculation, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has said the historic phone call she shared with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump does not augur a change in the island’s policy toward mainland China.

“I have to stress that one phone call does not mean a policy shift,” said Tsai in a Dec. 6 interview. “The phone call was a way for us to express our respect for the U.S. election as well as congratulate President-elect Trump on his win.” Tsai made the remarks to a small group of American journalists visiting the Taiwanese capital on a reporting trip organized by the East-West Center in Hawaii.

Trump has had phone calls with many world leaders since winning the Nov. 8 election, but this was different — the 10-minute conversation marked the first time a U.S. president and a Taiwanese president have had direct contact since relations between the United States and Taiwan were cut off in 1979. The United States adheres to the “One China” policy and recognizes Beijing as the sole head of government of that China. Although the United States maintains a representative office (short of an embassy) in Taipei, government officials do not refer to Taiwan as a country and do not refer to its elected leader as president. Trump’s conversation with Tsai broke decades of tradition, and in a tweet, he also referred to Tsai as the “president of Taiwan.”

Many U.S. China hands declared the move reckless and detrimental to the bilateral relationship. “Catching China by surprise on some of the most sensitive and longstanding areas of disagreement in our relationship,” said Paul Haenle, who directs the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, “presents enormous risks and potential detriment for this consequential relationship.” The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos wrote that “China will regard this as a deeply destabilizing event.”

Chinese analysts had similar views. “This is a wake-up call for Beijing,” Wang Dong, an associate professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies, told the New York Times on Dec. 3. “We should buckle up for a pretty rocky six months or year in the China-U.S. relationship.”

Others explained the phone call as typical Trumpian disregard for protocol and tradition, contending that it does not signal any strategic change in U.S. policy. As one colorful Dec. 4 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal put it, the U.S. media, still unaccustomed to Trump’s tendency to break with protocol, “had their 19th nervous breakdown Friday” after the phone call was announced.

The view from Taiwan, however, is significantly different. On the one hand, Beijing is capable of wielding huge influence over Taiwan’s economy and trade relations, if it wishes to do so. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner; 40 percent of the island’s exports go to the mainland. When Tsai took office in May, she declined to explicitly affirm the 1992 consensus, a vague statement agreed between Beijing and Taipei affirming the existence of only “one China” (without, however, specifying which China is the real one) and which serves as the current foundation of peaceful cross-strait relations. Smarting from Tsai’s sin of omission, Beijing slowed down the flow of mainland tourists to Taiwan, which squeezed the local economy. The Chinese Communist Party could further choke off tourism to Taiwan to retaliate against Tsai’s call and could also pursue measures to further isolate Taiwan on the international stage, such as putting pressure on foreign countries to reject free trade agreements with Taiwan.

But on the other hand, Taiwan’s very existence as an autonomous entity displeases China; ceasing to push back at Beijing presents an even greater existential risk. If Taiwan keeps giving way, it faces the prospect of being entirely subsumed by China, slice by slice. Pushing back against the mainland is in Taiwan’s DNA. Any government that refuses to maintain sustainable autonomy from China is likely to be toppled by a populace that is well-aware its own freedom is at stake.

Taiwanese officials emphasize that although they seek to maintain stable relations, they will not compromise on their own core interests. “Since May, China has put pressure on Taiwan in a coercive way,” said Chiu Chui-cheng, the deputy minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. “Our promise to the mainland is never changed. We will not succumb to pressure from the mainland side.”

Tsai certainly took some risk in pursuing contact with the U.S. president-elect, but it’s less risky than it seems, according to Yen Chen-shen, an international relations scholar at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “The previous détente under the KMT [Kuomintang] and Ma Ying-jeou government of 2008 to 2016 already came to an end,” Yen told Foreign Policy, referring to the former president’s conciliatory policies toward Beijing that led to historically smooth cross-strait relations. “Even though there appears to be low possibility of military conflicts across the Taiwan Strait, the existence of cold war is a reality we are facing already regardless of the phone call.”

Beijing’s ire has been directed largely at Taiwan rather than the United States. Beijing has been critical of Tsai, who is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party; the Communist Party had preferred the more Beijing-friendly KMT candidate. It was, after all, the KMT that had hashed out the 1992 consensus in the first place. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed Taiwan for the call. According to a post attributed to the Foreign Ministry, Wang said, “This is just the Taiwan side engaging in a petty action, and [it] cannot change the ‘One China’ structure already formed by the international community.” Wang continued: “The ‘One China’ policy is the cornerstone of the healthy development of China-U.S. relations, and we hope this political foundation will not be interfered with or damaged.”

Tsai is, at heart, a technocrat. She is cautious, and she operates through policy, not impulse. News that Trump advisors had planned the phone call for weeks and even months in advance suggests that Tsai knew she wouldn’t be taking a blind step — nor an overly risky one. It now seems Tsai aimed for a symbolic move that would raise Taiwan’s profile on the international stage without crossing Beijing’s red line by making actual moves toward greater independence. As she told FP on Dec. 6, “I do not foresee major policy shifts in the future because we all see the value of stability in the region.”

“Any leader of Taiwan would do this, if you have the opportunity,” Szu-chien Hsu, the president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, told FP. “As a responsible Taiwanese leader, how could you reject this opportunity?”

Tsai’s bold move has proved popular at home, and it may help shore up her flagging approval rating. Even so, the news cycle will soon move on, and Taiwan is likely to find itself in the same international position as it was before — but with an antagonized neighbor 100 miles to the west. It remains to be seen if the call will really have been worth the trouble.

Photo credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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