Playing the Taiwan Card, Trump Changes the Game With China

December 9, 2016 Updated: January 22, 2018

By accepting a phone call, Donald Trump has disrupted relations with China. And the United States and the Chinese people may be the better for it.

The call, of course, was from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2, offering congratulations on Trump’s electoral victory. No U.S. president or president-elect is believed to have spoken to a Taiwanese president since 1979, when the United States broke relations with Taiwan and adopted the “one-China policy.”

That policy depends on several pretenses. While the United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it does have de facto diplomatic relations, with each country having consular-type offices in the other.

The United States nullified its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan but has pledged to help provide for Taiwan’s defense. The U.S. goal has been to give Taiwan security, without encouraging it to declare independence from China, and to deter China from attacking Taiwan.

The United States is pledged to the one-China policy, but Taiwan and China each interpret that policy to mean that it is the real China.

On Purpose

President-elect Donald Trump in Fayetteville, N.C., on Dec. 6. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan, on Oct. 10. (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images & AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying).
President-elect Donald Trump in Fayetteville, N.C., on Dec. 6.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan, on Oct. 10. (Sara D. Davis/Getty Images & AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying).

Trump’s phone conversation with Tsai upset four decades’ worth of these delicate understandings, and U.S. diplomats, often interviewed on background, howled in outrage. Some suggested the call must have been a blunder by an in-over-his-head Trump.

The Washington Post and the Taipei Times each reported, though, that this call had been planned in advance. It was not a spontaneous error, but meant to send a message.

As is his wont, Trump took to Twitter to defend himself.

On the evening of the call, he first tweeted that Tsai had called him, then wrote in a second tweet, “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”

Two days later, in another pair of tweets, he wrote, “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!”

Evan Medeiros of the White House National Security Council told the Financial Times, “This phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative.”

Too Much Stability

In fact, with all due respect to Medeiros and the many other officials criticizing Trump, one suspects that setting in motion a fundamental change is exactly what Trump was aiming for.

Since the opening to China in 1972, the governing U.S. strategy has been that of engagement.

The thought has been that if the United States trades with and otherwise interacts with China, over time China will become more democratic, more like us.

For decades, the U.S. policy of engagement with China was founded on a fuzzy belief that somehow in the future things would work out.

In the last half-dozen years, a tipping point has been reached, as government and business leaders have been forced by events to realize that U.S.–China relations are deeply dysfunctional.

China has in the past manipulated its currency to gain an advantage in trade with the United States; dumped products on the U.S. market below cost to try to kill U.S. industries; put illegal (according to WTO law) restrictions on U.S. trade to China; modernized its military using designs stolen from the United States, as part of the massive cybertheft and spying operations that have cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars a year; demanded that U.S. companies surrender proprietary technology as a condition for operating in China; bullied its Asian neighbors; established an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea; and set up military outposts in contested waters throughout the South China Sea, despite findings by The Hague that China’s claims are without merit.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks with President-elect Donald Trump through a speaker phone in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 2. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP, File)
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks with President-elect Donald Trump through a speaker phone in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 2. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP, File)

But while the Chinese regime’s bad behavior has become impossible to ignore, the United States hasn’t had a clear policy to take the place of engagement.

Throughout the almost four decades since the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China, the United States has failed to deliver a simple message: If China’s actions are unacceptable, there will be consequences.

The policy of engagement was founded on a fuzzy belief that somehow in the future, things would work out. In the meantime, the U.S. priority needed to be on keeping the relationship with the Chinese regime going.

In this situation, maintaining stability in U.S.–China relations became a one-way ratchet. The Chinese regime would spy, steal, or bamboozle the United States, and the United States would keep the relationship going, only making toothless objections from time to time. In doing so, the United States was not creating a path to a better future; it was telling the Chinese regime that bad behavior would be rewarded or winked at.

A Different Approach

Trump’s call with Tsai let the Chinese regime know that there can be consequences. The Chinese regime considers Taiwan a “core interest”—something of greatest importance. After Trump’s call, the way in which the United States relates to Taiwan changed, which also changed the Chinese regime’s relations with Taiwan.

Might the United States continue playing the Taiwan card and restore full diplomatic and military relations? Trump adviser John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has suggested just that. He wrote in January in The Wall Street Journal that the United States can respond to the Chinese regime’s aggression in East Asia by moving through a series of steps to form closer relations with Taiwan.

Giving the Chinese regime consequences for its behavior can make conflict easier to manage, as conflicts are addressed earlier rather than later. It can also strengthen the hand of those inside the Chinese regime who are seeking to reform it.

On the campaign trail, Trump loudly denounced the Chinese regime’s economic misbehavior, saying that the United States will label China a currency manipulator; countervailing tariffs will be imposed on Chinese imports; and cases will be brought in the WTO.

Such a pushback against the Chinese regime’s gaming of the economic system might encourage the development of a domestic consumer market in China, which would be best for China in the long run.

Trump also should not hesitate to denounce the Chinese regime’s oppression at home.

U.S. administrations have typically found a few occasions to make largely symbolic statements about human rights or democracy in China, the significance of which quickly dissipates.

In showing that there are consequences for the Chinese regime’s tyranny, Trump would help lay the only sure foundation for the United States to have mutually beneficial and peaceful relations with China: ruling the Chinese people more justly.

Consider the atrocity of forced, live organ harvesting. Researchers estimate that between 60,000 and 100,000 organs have been harvested each year since 2000, mainly from practitioners of the spiritual practice of Falun Gong. If Trump speaks about this while in office, he will be the first U.S. president to do so.

In doing so, he would encourage all other countries to dissociate themselves from this barbarism. He, and other nations that would follow his lead, would make clear that the individuals responsible have committed crimes against humanity and should be identified and tried.

Trump’s calling the Chinese regime to account for its human rights abuses would strengthen the hand of current leader Xi Jinping, who is in the midst of a vast campaign aimed at wiping out corruption in the Communist Party. Those targeted for corruption have often been the most egregious human rights abusers, and making it clear that such abuses are unacceptable can aid Xi in turning the page.

As Xi sets a new course for China, Trump’s support for China in shedding the tyranny of a one-party state can aid reformers inside the Chinese Communist Party.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Stephen Gregory
Stephen Gregory is the Publisher of the U.S. editions of The Epoch Times.