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In a diplomatic bombshell that could rock Sino-American relations, President-elect Donald Trump spoke with President Tsai Ying-wen of Taiwan on Friday. According to the transition team, Trump and Tsai “noted the close economic, political, and security ties that exist between Taiwan and the United States.” The Financial Times reports that this may be the first direct contact between a US President or President-elect and the leader of Taiwan since 1979, when Washington severed official diplomatic relations with Taipei.
The US and Taiwan have a complex and extremely sensitive relationship. Washington cut off diplomatic ties with Beijing after Mao Zedong’s Communist Party forced the US-backed Kuomintang government retreat to Taiwan. After 1949, the United States, and most of the international community, continued to recognize the Kuomintang as the official representative of all China. It was only in 1972 that a US President substantively reengaged with Beijing—President Nixon’s highly-significant trip to China. As a first step towards diplomatic recognition, US and Chinese authorities jointly issued the Shanghai Communiqué at the end of President Nixon’s visit. In it, the United States “acknowledge[d] that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.” The US also “reaffirm[ed] its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.” Notably, Washington did not endorse Beijing’s position that “the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China.” That would not come until 1978, when President Jimmy Carter declared that, “The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have agreed to recognize each other and to establish diplomatic relations as of January 1, 1979”.
Notwithstanding Carter’s recognition of Beijing and the Shanghai Communiqué’s “one China” principle, Washington has never completely severed ties with Taiwan. In 1979 President Carter also signed the Taiwan Relations Act. This Act “authoriz[ed] the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan.” More specifically, the United States pledged to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” The Act also established the “American Institute of Taiwan,” a nonprofit corporation that “undertakes a wide range of activities representing U.S. interests.” As such, it is not an official representative of the United States Government, though in all practical respects the Institute is an extension of the US Department of State.
Beijing has largely tolerated US semi-official relations with Taiwan, though there have been a few moments of real concern. Typically, the tensions occur after US-Taiwan arms deals. In 1996, for example, Beijing staged missile tests in the Taiwan Strait after a particularly large arms deal between the US and Taiwan. In response, President Clinton ordered two fully armed carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait, eventually making Beijing back down.
Which brings us to today’s phone call. Recognizing the complex and sensitive history, Democratic and Republican administrations since 1972 have carefully continued the diplomatic balancing act begun under Presidents Nixon and Carter. Statements from President-elect Trump’s advisors, however, might indicate that his administration may seek a new strategic paradigm. Peter Navarro, a key Trump advisor on Asian affairs, has criticized both the Shanghai communiqué and President Carter’s recognition of Beijing. Navarro has also floated the idea of “sending private, retired military contractors to Taiwan to help train [Taiwanese] troops.” John Bolton, a candidate for a number of senior Trump national security posts, has also considered “modifying or jettisoning the ambiguous ‘one China’ mantra, along with even more far-reaching initiatives” to counter Chinese activities in the South and East China Seas. More specifically, Bolton urged that a new US administration “could start with receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department,” and making the American Institute of Taiwan an official US Government organ.
The President-elect’s personal financial interests further muddies the situation. According to the Shanghaiist, the Trump Organization was considering a deal to build luxury hotels in Taiwan as recently as this past September. It is unclear how far this deal has progressed, though a local mayor has said that the project is still speculative.
What will this all mean for Sino-American relations? As Bolton recognized, “Beijing’s leaders would be appalled by this approach.” He is likely correct. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang, speaking before the phone conversation, condemned proposed US-Taiwan military exchanges and “urge[d] the US to abide by the one China policy” and “avoid backsliding and damaging the larger interests of China-US relations.” President Xi Jinping has been particularly direct about Taiwan’s political status. After Tsai Ying-wen’s election President Xi reiterated Beijing’s strong opposition to Taiwan separatism, asserting that, “the more than 1.3 billion Chinese people and the whole country will not tolerate secessionist activities by any person, at any time and in any form.” Xi has also signaled that he may be more aggressive than past administrations in bringing Taiwan under Beijing’s control. He told former Taiwanese Vice President Vincent Siew, for example, that, “political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution . . . and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
If this phone call is indeed a first step in a plan to bolster Taiwanese sovereignty, the President-elect may find himself confronting a particularly vociferous, and increasingly powerful, opponent in President Xi Jinping.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the first to give Beijing's official reaction to the call. Striking a cautionary note, he reaffirmed that, "China firmly opposes any official interaction or military cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan." Foreign Minister Wang also sought to shift the blame to Taiwan, stating that Tsai would not be able to change the internationally accepted "One China" policy.