Trump's Taiwan call could disrupt 'very calibrated dance' between U.S., China

More than two decades before U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen broke longstanding diplomatic protocol last week, one of Tsai’s predecessors triggered a scary response from China. One that eventually drew in the American military and could foreshadow how combustible U.S.-China relations can get.

In 1995, U.S. Congressional leaders cleared the way for former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University, a trip that so outraged Beijing that the Communist power fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait.

The incident touched off what became known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, an eight-month-long display of sabre-rattling involving ballistic “tests” that only ceased after U.S. president Bill Clinton dispatched military ships into the region, causing China to back off.

China has only grown more powerful in the intervening 21 years.

The lesson this time for Trump? Tread very carefully when risking offending the volatile superpower, particularly when it comes to giving off the impression of recognizing Taiwan as an independent democratic state, says Orville Schell, the Asia Society’s Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations.

Tough-on-China policy

Such a radical shift in foreign policy could spark an economic standoff with China. With China occupying one of five votes on the United Nations Security Council, it could also jeopardize co-operation when it comes to imposing sanctions on Iran or partnering against nuclear proliferation of North Korea.

“Is it dangerous? Absolutely. It may be righteous, but it’s dangerous,” Schell says of moving toward diplomatic ties with the island of 23 million, which China considers among its 23 provinces. 

“It could very easily erupt into warfare.”

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During his election campaign, Trump adopted an ‘America first’ approach, boasting about a tough-on-China policy. (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

During his election campaign, Trump adopted an “America first” approach, boasting about a tough-on-China policy, characterizing Beijing as a currency manipulator and proposing slapping 45 per cent tariffs on imports from China.

His unorthodox chat with Tsai, the first time in 37 years that an American president or president-elect communicated officially with a Taiwanese counterpart, was widely viewed as a provocative move.

Schell warns of the consequences of disrupting the “very calibrated dance” the U.S. and China have swayed to in order to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait.

“Constructive ambiguity” was the term that former secretary of state Henry Kissinger used to define this balance. 

“Trump’s vice is his sort of reckless way he proceeds into an issue without fully understanding it,” Schell says. “He is the disrupter. Some of these disruptions could be surprisingly constructive. Others could be dangerously destructive.”

Strategy for stability?

It would be unwise to ignore the interdependency the two superpowers share, says Jordan Tama, a foreign-policy expert at American University.

China and the U.S. are two largest carbon-emitters in the world and will need to co-operate on climate change, for example.

As for Trump’s end game? Tama says the rationale for seeking to strengthen relations with Taiwan is to counter the rise of China, giving the U.S. a regional foothold in Asia and making it more difficult for China to expand its influence.

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Trump has said Tsai reached out to him last week, describing the call as a simple congratulatory conversation. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Trump has played coy about his chat with Tsai, describing it as a simple congratulatory conversation. He insisted that Tsai reached out to him. 

If Trump was oblivious to the sensitive nature of speaking officially with a Taiwanese leader, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy says, that’s worrisome in its own right. 

“These are major pivots in foreign policy [without] any plan. That’s how wars start,” Murphy tweeted on Friday.

‘Bargaining chip’

It’s likely Trump would have prearranged the call with Tsai, just as Taipei would not have wanted to risk the political embarrassment of Trump refusing her phone call, says Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China.

Whether a diplomatic blunder or calculated move, though, Chang argues closer ties between the U.S. and Taiwan could be strategically useful for keeping East Asia stable.

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A Taiwan sailor is shown on patrol of the Taiwan Strait in this 2013 file photo. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

That’s because the U.S. opposes China’s militarizing of man-made islands in the South China Sea, which America views as an open international waterway.

Taiwan, as an intermediary land mass between the East China Sea and the South China Sea, serves a “cork in the bottle” function that could constrain Chinese naval expansion in the Western Pacific, Chang says.

If reopening official lines with Taiwan was intentional, he welcomes the new approach.

“The China policy is going to change. And it’s just got to — it’s unsustainable,” he says. “Maintaining co-operation with an increasingly hostile, authoritarian state is not the way to go.”

Chang believes that Trump has created a “bargaining chip” by raising a quandary that China may now want to work to reverse, but he cautions the president-elect will need to play his hand carefully.

“He’s started a staring match, and it’s very important for him not to blink.”

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