National Security & Defense

Why Trump’s Phone Conversation with Taiwan’s President Is a Good Sign

Tsai Ing-wen celebrates her election victory, January 16, 2016. (Reuters photo: Pichi Chaung)
The U.S. should more actively support Taiwan’s independence-loving people.

When the president-elect of the U.S. took a phone call last week with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, he may not have known that he was breaking a four-decades-old precedent and potentially disrupting the delicate state of affairs that prevails between Taiwan and its neighbor across the Taiwan Strait, China. Needless to say, such an approach to international dealings is not ideal. But neither is an “expert” approach that fails to distinguish friends from foes — which has been America’s approach for the last eight years. Taiwan is the sort of country the United States should seek to support. Instead, the U.S. remains beholden to a decades-old, Cold War arrangement that favors the Communist regime in Beijing over the vibrant democracy in Taipei — an arrangement to which the Obama administration has been far friendlier than its predecessor. Donald Trump should aim to shift this balance of power.

Which country is more amenable to American ideals is not difficult to discern. As the 20th century made clear, People’s Republics tend to be extraordinarily unfriendly to the people who reside in them — for instance, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no different, having existed for 70 years under varying degrees of Communist oppression: at one end, Mao Zedong’s, responsible for mass slaughter on a scale comparable to Joseph Stalin’s; at the other, Xi Jinping’s, which also “disappears” political dissidents, but does so quietly in order to earn the admiration of Thomas Friedman and other gullible leftwing luminaries.

The Republic of China (Taiwan), by contrast, was constituted of the ethnic Chinese loyal to Sun Yat-sen’s vision of a modern, quasi-Western Chinese republic, 1 million of whom fled Mao’s forces during the Chinese Civil War in the mid 1940s and settled on the island just off the mainland’s southeast coast. For more than a quarter-century, the impromptu country was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek, a complicated, mercurial autocrat whose legacy remains a source of debate in Taiwan; he was succeeded by his son, Chiang Ching-kuo. However, after Chiang the younger’s death in 1988, the country instituted dramatic democratic reforms. While it has problems — economic stagnation and limited environmental resources, among much else — Taiwan is a young, energetic democracy whose culture is unique blend of Eastern and Western elements. It is also the fifth-largest economy in Asia and one of the 20 largest economies in the world. Own an Apple product? Thank Taiwan. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is Apple’s supplier.

The goal of the PRC has always been to bring Taiwan to heel. The Communist government has never accepted Taiwanese independence, and it applies pressures of various sorts to prevent Taiwan from growing too bold in seeking normalized relations with other nations. Since 40 percent of Taiwanese exports go to mainland China and Hong Kong, the PRC has significant economic leverage. But, not shy about the use of hard power, it also has 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, and Xi Jinping has emphasized that they are not an idle threat.

Supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party on election night in January. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Taiwan, for its part, only grows more independence-minded. In January, the country reduced the Kuomintang (KMT) to just 35 out of 113 seats in the country’s national parliament, giving the “opposition” Democratic Progressive Party control of the parliament for the first time in the country’s history. Taiwanese voters also elected Tsai, a DPP president. The DPP and smaller, like-minded parties, as opposed to the KMT and its allies, generally believe that Taiwan is de facto independent, and they eschew the KMT’s conciliatory approach to Beijing, preferring an approach that is more cautiously antagonistic. Given that younger voters feel little to no connection with mainland China, a more independence-minded politics is likely to gain ground in coming years.

This is a movement the United States should support. There are economic reasons, certainly: Taiwan occupies an integral place in the global technology supply chain, for example. But, more important, Taiwan is a country of freedom-loving people who are governed by legitimately elected representatives, who operate a free press, and who seek to work amicably with a community of international partners. China is a large, sprawling, complex country, in which many people are flourishing economically; but it is ruled by a one-party dictatorship that seeks to maintain — and is presently working to consolidate — power. The contrast between the two countries is perhaps most visible at the entrance to Taipei 101, the tallest skyscraper in Taiwan and formerly the tallest building in the world: Visitors will see Falun Gong adherents practicing their religion openly and protesting the Chinese government. But just 110 miles to the west, across the Taiwan Strait, Falun Gong practitioners are imprisoned and used to source a state-run organ-trafficking trade.

#related#The last eight years have witnessed the abandonment of freedom-loving people — whether in Taipei, Kiev, or the streets of Tehran — in favor of the authoritarian regimes that aim to oppress them. Diplomacy is an art. Needless or thoughtless provocation is not in our interest. But America’s ideals are fragile. Wherever they happen to spring up, we should aim to nourish them. Donald Trump may have stumbled into it, but his conversation with Tsai Ing-wen presents an opportunity to shift the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait for the better.


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