Donald Trump’s phone call with the president of Taiwan wasn’t a blunder by an inexperienced president-elect unschooled in the niceties of cross-straits diplomacy.
It was a deliberate move - and a brilliant one at that.
The phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen was reportedly carefully planned, and Trump was fully briefed before the call, according to The Washington Post. It’s not that Trump was unfamiliar with the “Three Communiques” or unaware of the fiction that there is “One China.” Trump knew precisely what he was doing in taking the call. He was serving notice on Beijing that it is dealing with a different kind of president - an outsider who will not be encumbered by the same Lilliputian diplomatic threads that tied down previous administrations. The message, as John Bolton correctly put it, was that “the president of the United States will talk to whomever he wants if he thinks it’s in the interest of the United States, and nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to.”
Amen to that.
And if that message was lost on Beijing, Trump underscored it on Sunday, tweeting: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!” He does not need Beijing’s permission to speak to anyone. No more kowtowing in a Trump administration.
Trump promised during the campaign that he would take a tougher stand with China, and supporting Taiwan has always been part of his get-tough approach to Beijing. As far back as 2011, Trump tweeted: “Why is @BarackObama delaying the sale of F-16 aircraft to Taiwan? Wrong message to send to China. #TimeToGetTough.” Indeed, the very idea that Trump could not speak to Taiwan’s president because it would anger Beijing is precisely the kind of weak-kneed subservience that Trump promised to eliminate as president.
Trump’s call with the Taiwanese president sent a message not only to Beijing, but also to the striped-pants foreign-policy establishment in Washington. It is telling how so many in that establishment immediately assumed Trump had committed an unintended gaffe. “Bottomless pig-ignorance” is how one liberal foreign-policy commentator described Trump’s decision to speak with Tsai. Trump just shocked the world by winning the presidential election, yet they still underestimate him. The irony is that the hyperventilation in Washington has far outpaced the measured response from Beijing. When American foreign-policy elites are more upset than China, perhaps it’s time for some introspection.
The hypocrisy is rank. When President Obama broke with decades of U.S. policy and extended diplomatic recognition to a murderous dictatorship in Cuba, the foreign-policy establishment swooned. Democrats on Capitol Hill praised Obama for taking action that was “long overdue.” Former President Jimmy Carter raved about how Obama had “shown such wisdom,” while the New York Times gushed that Obama was acting “courageously” and “ushering in a transformational era for millions of Cubans who have suffered as a result of more than 50 years of hostility between the two nations.”
But when Trump broke with decades of U.S. diplomatic practice and had a phone call with the democratically elected leader of Taiwan, he was declared a buffoon. Well, if they didn’t like that phone call, his critics may hate what could come next even more. Trump now has an opportunity to do with Taiwan what Obama did with Cuba - normalize relations.
There are a number of steps the Trump administration can take to strengthen our military, economic and diplomatic ties with Taiwan. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Derek Scissors has suggested that Trump could negotiate a new free-trade agreement with Taiwan. “Taiwan’s tiny population means there is no jobs threat,” Scissors says, but Taiwan is also the United States’ ninth-largest trading partner. A free-trade agreement would be economically beneficial to both sides and would send a message to friend and foe alike in Asia that, despite Trump’s planned withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United States is not withdrawing from the region.
On the military front, Trump could begin sending general officers to Taipei once again to coordinate with their Taiwanese counterparts and hold joint military exercises. On the diplomatic front, Bolton says the new administration could start “receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department; upgrading the status of U.S. representation in Taipei from a private ’institute’ to an official diplomatic mission; inviting Taiwan’s president to travel officially to America; allowing the most senior U.S. officials to visit Taiwan to transact government business; and ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition.”
Beijing would be wise not to overreact to any overtures Trump makes to Taiwan. When China tested President George W. Bush in his first months in office by scrambling fighters and forcing a U.S. EP-3 aircraft to land on the Chinese island of Hainan, its actions backfired. After the incident, Bush approved a $30 billion arms package for Taiwan, announced that Taiwan would be treated as a major non-NATO ally and declared that the United States would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan. His actions not only strengthened U.S. ties with Taiwan but also set the stage for good relations with Beijing throughout his presidency.
China does not want to make the same mistake and overplay its hand with Trump. Trump’s call with Taiwan’s president was a smart, calculated move designed to send a clear message: The days of pushing the United States around are over.
That may horrify official Washington, but it’s the right message to send.
Thiessen, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush, writes a weekly online column for The Post.