When Donald Trump threw a spanner into the delicate diplomatic machinery of Taiwan policy on Friday by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, the problem was not that he dared to challenge the long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity,” and not that he had dared to poke Beijing in the eye. The problem was how he did it, and when.
Strategic ambiguity has served the U.S. well in the region for nearly 40 years. In walking the fine line between the competing commitments of our “One China Policy” and our obligation to safeguard Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. has been able to play a constructive role in maintaining regional security without wholly abandoning Taiwan, has allowed Taiwan to enjoy de facto autonomy, and has created conditions for deepening cross-strait ties, even for increased trust between once-implacable foes. Measured in investment, trade, cultural exchange, tourism and, most significantly, the reduction of military tension, strategic ambiguity — both as an American policy and as the policy of both Beijing and Taipei — has been a success.
But let me be clear: The U.S. should revisit its long-standing “One China” stance. We should find a way to move away from strategic ambiguity and drop the fiction it rests upon. Taiwan, after all, is a healthy and vibrant democracy that’s seen three peaceful transitions of power between the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party since the end of martial law. Taiwan has never been under Beijing’s control. Its political institutions stand as a rebuke to the insultingly essentialist notion, still espoused in some quarters, that Chinese people are somehow culturally incapable of democratic government.
In the 1970s, we threw Taiwan under the bus to win China as an unofficial ally against the U.S.S.R., but given the exigencies of that time and the tremendous improvements that flowed from the normalization of relations with the P.R.C. in the ensuing decades, it was the right move. However, reality has changed. Our priorities have changed. The fiction we upheld for all this time has outlived its usefulness and we should pursue adjustments to it. But not in the way that Donald Trump has done it.
Trump made a move with undeniable foreign policy ramifications; indeed, there’s probably no issue of greater consequence for the western Pacific. And let’s not try to excuse his actions on the grounds that he is, for another six weeks, just a private citizen. No other “private citizen” has done anything comparable just prior to taking office — not even those who’ve made clear their opposition to the One China Policy. Trump’s action bypassed the mechanisms we have in place for the conduct of foreign policy, usurped the prerogative of a sitting president, and dumped what could easily still prove to be a significant diplomatic crisis on President Obama’s lap. Though the odds of Beijing literally going ballistic over this phone call are exceedingly low (and, at the time of this writing, China’s official response has been decidedly muted), Trump was nevertheless playing with lives. That kind of gambit wasn’t his to make, and it was irresponsible of him to make it.
Of course, Trump’s supporters have written about the Trump-Tsai call approvingly. Stephen Yates, the Mandarin-speaking Idaho GOP chairman who was initially believed to have advised Trump about the call, co-wrote a piece on Fox News with a former George W. Bush State Department adviser named Christian Whiton, praising Trump for flouting the wisdom of the “experts” and playing to the know-nothings and the anti-expert animus that sent them to the polls to cast their votes for Trump.
In Taiwan, too, the call has, not surprisingly, gone over well with the public. Since her election in January and inauguration in May, Tsai Ing-wen has seen her approval ratings tumble, dropping to as low as 26 percent according to one poll — and this from highs in the 70s just months ago. Her support for a reduction in national holidays as well as her party’s controversial support for gay marriage in a still culturally conservative Taiwan have eroded her popularity, and rallying pro-independence Taiwanese around the flag by sticking it to Beijing may have been behind the Tsai administration’s push for the call.
The origins of the call remain unclear. The Washington Post reported on Sunday that Trump’s advisers planned the call with him, suggesting that Trump intended to provoke Beijing and signal a break with past policy. Indeed, there is no shortage of fierce critics of strategic ambiguity who have been linked to Trump: Former UN ambassador John Bolton, who authored an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal in January calling for a radical shift in Taiwan policy, has been mooted as a potential secretary of state or deputy secretary of state. University of California, Irvine, business school professor Peter Navarro, who wrote the book Death by China, and Pentagon consultant Michael Pillsbury have both championed a harder line with Beijing and were both involved in the Trump campaign.
But vice-president-elect Mike Pence, appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday morning, downplayed the significance of the call, saying that it was only a “courtesy call” and didn’t represent a shift in policy. It’s possible that Trump was practicing, ironically, his own kind of strategic ambiguity — that this was a trial balloon floated to see how Beijing reacted.
Trump’s dangerous propensity to mix diplomacy with business, coupled with the venality of which Trump has made no secret, has even led some to speculate that he may be trying to further his business interests in Taiwan.
With all this uncertainty and equivocation, Beijing just doesn’t know what to make of this move, or indeed of Trump himself. A jittery and unsure Beijing is not good for security: More hawkish elements within the Politburo or the PLA may be emboldened, and with Obama winding down and Trump focused on filling cabinet slots and on the transition, if Beijing decided to treat this as a worst-case scenario, it could change facts on the ground with almost no chance of an effective American response.
Perhaps surprisingly, we’ve seen little of the seething indignation one expects to find online on this issue. Apparently, The Donald’s popularity among the sort of nationalistic Chinese zealots (the sort who rushed to shame a teenage Taiwanese pop singer who waved the flag of the Republic of China) was enough to douse whatever flare-ups of anger they might have felt at his decision not only to take President Tsai’s call but also to congratulate her on winning office.
Meanwhile, China watchers — like the rest of the world — find themselves in the absurd position of having to glean Trump’s intentions through bursts of activity on Twitter. Trump’s latest China-related tweets suggest that he’s now broadening the front with Beijing from the Taiwan issue to include currency and trade (notes he hit often from the campaign trail) to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea: “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!”
It’s easy to understand how some might viscerally relish an overdue eye-poking for Beijing. But the stakes are too high for cavalier, cowboy diplomacy. Strategic ambiguity may well need rethinking. Unfortunately, what Trump has offered has been not at all strategic, and altogether too ambiguous.