Donald Trump’s bombastic tweeting after his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has dragged Taiwan into a potentially disastrous confrontation with Beijing – the opposite of what those who initiated the call intended.
This should be a warning to those who think they can use Trump to implement their policy preferences.
Taiwan matters. It matters to the U.S. because it is a longtime economic and security partner in East Asia, and because its peaceful transition from single-party authoritarianism to liberal democracy is an example to would-be democracies. More importantly, it matters to its 23 million residents whose security and freedom depend on wise, steady leadership in their capital, Taipei, and Washington.
Trump’s tweets cast doubts on the next U.S. administration’s ability to provide that wisdom and steadiness. That is especially unfortunate given how cautiously President Tsai has approached her job since becoming a candidate over a year ago. In less than 300 characters, Trump risks blowing up Tsai’s painstaking efforts to forge a stable relationship with Beijing.
Many experienced China hands defended the phone call between Trump and Tsai. Others disagree, but there is an argument to be made that the phone call was wise.
In the past, restrictions on US officials’ interactions with Taiwanese counterparts have led to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Before taking office, Tsai devoted years to cultivating trust with U.S. officials, so when she was elected, both sides could be confident there would be no bad surprises. Giving her a chance to speak with the president-elect during the transition was not a terrible idea.
But Trump’s tweets about the call were terrible. His boast “the President of Taiwan CALLED ME” threw the initiative onto Tsai, giving Beijing the excuse it needed to blame her. He then tweeted that the US sells “billions of dollars of military equipment” to Taiwan, something U.S. offficials try not to highlight. Trump’s most recent tweets have dragged the call into even more hot-button issues in U.S.-China relations.
The Trump camp insists Trump has been fully briefed on the implications of a change in Taiwan policy, but his tweets suggest the only part of the briefing he really heard was, “The Chinese leaders don’t want you to talk to Tsai Ing-wen.”
Leaders in Beijing would prefer not to tank their relationship with the U.S. even before Trump takes office, so their first response was to minimize the incident and blame Tsai. That is a shame, since Tsai has worked for months to reassure Beijing she has no intention of upsetting the delicate balance in the Taiwan Strait through some kind of sneak attack.
Trump’s tweets also have complicated Tsai’s domestic situation. While most Taiwanese support Tsai’s policy of maintaining peaceful, cooperative relations with China while preserving the island’s political autonomy, some want her take a more assertive stance against the mainland. To that constituency, the Trump phone call raises the hope the U.S. might enable – or even compel – Tsai to move in that direction. Rumors are flying in Taiwan that Tsai will meet with Trump in person during a stop-over in New York next month.
Tsai’s administration has tried to quash those rumors, calling them “wild speculation.” A source close to Tsai said her team was surprised and unprepared when Trump tweeted about the call, which they had expected to remain quiet. Even if a private call with Trump was a good idea, the firestorm his swaggering public tweets have ignited may incinerate Tsai’s efforts to stabilize Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland and unite her own people.
It is clear Trump plans to change U.S.- China policy. The phone call with Tsai – and the press release announcing the call, which called her the “president of Taiwan,” a title so sensitive even she does not use it internationally – is just one signal of that change. Changing policy is every administration’s prerogative. But allowing a friendly country to become collateral damage to a president-elect’s Twitter account is a bad way to begin.
Shelley Rigger is the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College