Last week, Donald Trump took a phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. Cross-strait relations being what they are (fragile), and Donald Trump’s foreign-policy vision being what it is (opaque), the prevailing reaction was one of horror. Senator Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), taking a break from scaremongering about the NRA, tweeted that Trump’s “radical temporary deviation” from precedent — no American and Taiwanese head of state have spoken since 1979 — was “how wars start,” studiously ignoring that Donald Trump is not as of yet commander-in-chief. But such details were largely beside the point. Indeed, one would have been hard-pressed not to detect a bit of glee among Trump’s left-wing critics, excited to see governance-by-tweet apparently proven calamitous so quickly.
But rumors of apocalypse were overstated. Beijing’s response, besides requesting that the U.S. not let President Tsai pass through the U.S. in January on her way to Guatemala, has been muted. That is to be expected. China has more to lose than to gain from an overreaction. For Donald Trump’s domestic critics, though, the opposite tends to be true.
It is a telling comment on America’s political Left that they have reacted more strongly to Donald Trump’s potentially “undiplomatic” phone call to the head of a vibrant democracy than to the regime in Beijing trying to crush that democracy. Visitors to Taiwan will find a fairly elected president, a vigorous legislature, an open press, religious freedom, the fifth-largest economy in Asia, and a unique culture that straddles East and West. A little over 100 miles to the west, visitors will find a one-party dictatorship, directly descended from the terrors of Chairman Mao, that “disappears” political dissidents and harvests the organs of Falun Gong adherents.
But the latter claims sovereignty over the former. According to the government in Beijing, Taiwan does not have a “president” or a “legislature.” China has never recognized Taiwan’s independence, and still harbors hopes of bringing the island back under Beijing’s rule, under the auspices of its specious “One China” philosophy (to which we have long been opposed; historically, the PRC ought to be considered a province of Taiwan, whose government predates the Communists by nearly four decades). To this end, China exercises significant economic pressure to keep Taiwan dependent on Chinese markets; it exercises diplomatic pressure to keep Taiwan from participation in international bodies such as the United Nations (where even the Palestinian Liberation Organization has observer status); and, if worse comes to worst, it is prepared to deploy the 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles currently pointed at Taiwan. It turns out that, the week before Trump’s phone call, two nuclear-capable Chinese bombers encircled Taiwan during a long-range surveillance mission.
In 1979, the United States cut off Taiwan, opting to recognize the Communists in Beijing as the sole legitimate rulers of China. Taiwan was muscled out of the international community, and reduced to engagement under the banner of political fictions such as “Chinese Taipei.” Poking at this artificial consensus hardly qualifies as an egregious faux pas. Far more scandalous is clinging to the foreign-policy decisions of prior administrations simply because they are precedent.
American involvement in cross-strait relations should be handled delicately, and with a clear end in mind. There is no room for needless or thoughtless provocation, and conservatives should demand that needling our foes be part of a larger, coherent policy. It remains unclear whether that’s the case here. Nonetheless, it is obvious that a free Taiwan — and, ultimately, a free mainland China — are in America’s best interests, and if followed up with care, Donald Trump’s phone call could be an opportunity to modestly advance those goals.