The Trump-Tsai Phone Call

By now, most international media around the world have reported and analyzed the meaning behind the phone call between U.S. President-elect and President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan for a full week. Most of the Washington foreign policy establishment had their hands up in the air, criticizing Trump’s move as a major diplomatic blunder, attributed to his lack of understanding of U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, China’s response has tuned up from the mild reaction from Chinese foreign minister to the Communist party papers calling for nuclear arms preparations. The New Yorker suggested that President Tsai probably took a risk making the call.

As Michael J. Cole wrote in his article in The Diplomat:

In the week since the call, the hundreds of articles written about and interviews given on the subject worldwide have largely focused on the mechanics of the call . . . [L]ittle effort was made to analyze why Taiwan’s first female president, in office since May 20 and brought to power in January via democratic instruments, was willing to place a call . . . Even less was said, with a few notable exceptions, about reactions in Taiwan, particularly its 23 million citizens, who far too often in the rare instances of international attention are denied, by omission rather than design, a voice of their own, as if all of them were little more than insentient subjects to the implacable waves of history or the dictates of decisionmakers in Washington and Beijing.

It would have seemed that Taiwanese opinions simply don’t matter. And perhaps in American and Chinese eyes, they don’t. Taiwan has about the same population as Australia, it’s simply a pity that the land area isn’t as large, because then it won’t be as easily ignored, or be described as a “bargaining chip” in Sino-American relationship. Taiwan is a country with history and people. Despite most of American media reducing Taiwan’s complicated relationship with China into a sentence or two, or simply provided statements that no longer reflects how Taiwanese people think about the relationship, we still live on, sometimes having to beg for what little international space is available to us, and China still has thousands of missiles aiming at us.

That is why, perhaps, the phone call is met with what Cole described as “guarded optimism” in Taiwan. We are happy that Mr. Trump said he had a conversation with the President of Taiwan, not the leader of Taiwan, or free China, or Chinese Taipei, or Taiwan, China, or any other terms used conveniently to replace Taiwan so as to not anger the People’s Republic of China. We already have to use a plethora of names in different places, as James Crawford wrote in The Creation of States in International Law (2007):

But this does not mean that Taiwan has no status what[so]ever in international law . . . Taiwan may end up having many different personas: it may be a meteorological entity, an aviation entity, an investment entity as well as a fishing entity. It is surprising it does not suffer from schizophrenia.

At the same time, it is baffling to see that we have to be treated as some sort of political taboo. Taiwanese people are under no illusion that the U.S. is just suddenly going to recognize Taiwan as a country and normalize diplomatic relations. That would be a good way for a third world war to start, and Taiwan is a lot closer to harm’s way. Donald Trump probably used the word Taiwan because that made things easier to understand, as opposed to the official Republic of China. But why does it have to be such a big deal for a U.S. President-elect to speak to a democratically-elected head of state, whose country puts most things the U.S. preaches to other countries—democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and press—into daily practice, and are not satisfied with the progress it has achieved?

Taiwanese millennials are generally a progressive and liberal bunch. Most of our values lean towards the left, and most of us have not been fans of Donald Trump because of how he behaves and his rhetoric during his campaign. However, on the issue of this particular phone call, we suddenly found right-leaning media to be our allies, while most left/liberal media and politicians pretty much just threw Taiwan under the bus because that way they could continue to attack Trump and the Republican Party. The gist of our sentiment is basically this: attack him all you want, but leave us alone.

Josh Gelernter of National Review wrote:

[W]hen it comes to our relations with Taiwan, [Mr. Trump] should remember that there’s more to them than the art of the deal. We must support Taiwan because it is right.

John J. Tkacik wrote in The National Interest:

President-elect Donald Trump’s telephone call with Taiwan president Tsai is a fresh Reaganesque breeze clearing the air of recondite jargon and misinformation that has enveloped Washington’s China policy for the past quarter century.

Stephen Yates and Christian Whiton wrote for Fox News:

If a little courtesy to a democratic friend and a little truth about Taiwan could really threaten peace in the Pacific, as the experts contend, then we need to reevaluate our defense and come up with something better.

If this post seems as if Taiwan really just wants to be praised for its good behavior, that would be because we seldom get recognized for anything, and most of the time not by a name of our own choosing and liking. All Taiwanese people want is the right to choose the future and name of our own country, free of intimidation and military threats from China, and to be a part of the community of nations. Is that too much to ask?


2 thoughts on “The Trump-Tsai Phone Call”

  1. Hello,

    I was wondering if you could contact me privately at my email address. I am very interested in talking to you about your perspective of Taiwan.


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