Why Trump’s Call With Taiwan Could Be a Breakthrough
To Donald Trump’s legions of critics, his decision to take a phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan only confirmed what they already believed: The president-elect is in way over his head, committing diplomatic blunders on a massive scale. A POLITICO headline summed up the view of many China experts: “Bull in a China shop: Trump risks diplomatic blowup in Asia.”
Like most political observers, I’m no expert in predicting the outcomes of Trump’s unconventional gambits. But I am familiar enough with that region of the world to have felt a sense of satisfaction—rather than alarm—when I first heard that Trump had talked to Taiwan’s leader. During my early stints as a foreign correspondent based in Hong Kong and then in Moscow during the Cold War, I both came to appreciate Taiwan’s difficult position and witnessed the dramatic improvements in U.S.-Soviet relations that defied earlier dire expectations. All of which contributes to my sense now that, as in all things Trump, it’s best not to assume that the conventional view offers an adequate interpretation of the likely consequences of his actions.
Right after the Carter administration announced its decision to break relations with Taiwan in order to “normalize” relations with China in December 1978, I flew to Taipei to report on the island nation’s reaction. My first destination: The largely shuttered U.S. mission that was about to lose its status as an embassy. A swelling mass of protesters had gathered with posters proclaiming “We don’t need the U.S.” and “Oppose relations with the U.S. and the Communist Bandits.” When an embassy station wagon skirted the protest, eggs splattered on its hood.
As I edged into the crowd to get a closer look, heads began to turn at the sight of the only recognizable American in their midst. A group of excitably gesticulating young men moved toward me. One of them lunged, raising his arms and shoving me—but far more gently than it would have appeared to his buddies. “You go home, American, you go home,” he said leaning in close to me.
It finally registered that he was only playing the tough guy while trying to get me out of harm’s way. As a still green foreign correspondent, I had been too caught up in reporting to recognize that I was in danger. I felt grateful for his quick thinking and kindness. By then a policeman had moved in to help escort me out safely. As I left, another young man offered an additional comment: “I’m sorry about my people’s behavior, but Carter is wrong. The people are very angry.”
They were indeed. But Taiwan’s leaders and its people, just like the protester who protected me, have largely conducted themselves with dignity during the nearly four decades since then. To my mind, it’s hard to argue against the point that Trump made in response to those who attacked him for talking to Taiwan’s president. “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call,” he tweeted.
This does not—and should not—signal a reversal of what is now long-established U.S. policy to recognize Beijing instead of Taipei. But it marks a significant change in tone.
After my stint in Asia, I served as Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief during the early days of the Reagan administration. The new president’s tough talk directed at the Kremlin—the heart of “the evil empire,” as he put it—was even more shocking to many Russia experts in Western Europe and the United States than Trump’s actions are today to experienced China hands.
The sclerotic regime of Leonid Brezhnev proclaimed the dawn of a dark new era in U.S.-Soviet relations, pinning all the blame on “the cowboy” in the White House. Yet by the end of his second term, Reagan had developed an unprecedentedly close relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, who had taken charge in 1985. Partly as a result of the pressure of the Reagan-era arms buildup, the new Soviet leader recognized that his country had to embark on a policy of economic (perestroika) and political (glasnost) reforms. And while the two leaders failed to agree on a broader disarmament agenda at their Reykjavik summit in 1986, they emerged convinced that they could strike more limited deals. They negotiated new arms agreements, keeping East-West tensions in check as the Soviet Union started to unravel.
This is not to suggest any direct analogies between the imploding Soviet Union of the 1980s and China today. The latter has rapidly developed into an economic superpower while the Soviet Union was, at the end, a basket case unable to provide for the rudimentary needs of its citizens.
Nor is it to suggest that Trump has anything like the clear foreign policy vision that Reagan had honed over several decades. In fact, Trump looks to be improvising all too often—and, at times, especially when the subject turns to Vladimir Putin’s Russia—he appears to have little grasp of even the most basic facts about its annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But there is still a lesson for today. The new administration needs to signal both self-confidence and respect when handling its relations with China—a country that is hardly shy about flaunting its growing political and military clout, especially in the South China Sea.
Trump’s decision to take the call from President Tsai may have been a bold move to make the first point. His earlier call with President Xi Jinping of China emphasized the second, with both leaders pledging to work for strong ties. While China’s foreign ministry protested Trump’s phone call with Tsai, Beijing’s overall reaction was fairly muted—with nothing like the alarmist tone sounded by many of Trump’s domestic critics. "China and the United States are not destined rivals," the Xinhua news agency insisted.
Then on Monday, at a news conference, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said: “The Chinese side has lodged solemn representations with the relevant party on the U.S. side both in Beijing and Washington.” That hardly sounded like a thundering condemnation.
Tough love can sometimes work wonders in diplomacy. If Trump can achieve the right balance between a show of renewed respect for Taiwan while keeping relations with China on an even keel, he has a chance of chalking up one such wonder.
Andrew Nagorski is a former foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek, and the author of The Nazi Hunters.