What Donald Trump’s Phone Call with Taiwan Means for the U.S.

The ‘one China’ policy remains a bedrock of principle in the U.S.-China relationship. Does Trump’s phone call shake that foundation?

By Rhonda FanningDecember 5, 2016 12:10 pm|

Over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump took a controversial call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Tsai is also known by another title: the President of the Republic of China – the legal successor to the nationalist movement which fled the Chinese mainland in 1949. She positions herself as the legitimate claimant to rulership over China. Chinese officials, however, call her the leader of a renegade province.

Beginning with former President Richard Nixon and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, the U.S. has recognized a “one China” policy – the view that there is only one “China,” despite Taiwan’s claims of independence.

The Economist writes that “one China” is an elaborate diplomatic “face-saving fiction” – although a life-saving one.

Some commentators suggest that Trump committed a faux pas in accepting the phone call from Tsai, other says he’s intentionally pushing China’s buttons for strategic reasons.

China’s foreign ministry lodged a complaint with the U.S. over the phone call, saying that Trump overturned decades of diplomatic relations:

“We urge the relevant side in the U.S. to adhere to the ‘one China’ policy, abide by the pledges in the three joint China-U.S. communiques, and handle issues related to Taiwan carefully and properly to avoid causing unnecessary interference to the overall China-U.S. relationship.”

Joshua Eisenman, with the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ’s School of Public Affairs, says the “one China” policy remains a bedrock of principle in the U.S.-China relationship. The main question, Eisenman says, is whether or not Trump’s call will impact that in any significant way.

He says he doesn’t see that happening.

“I see this as a phone call,” Eisenman says. “I think it’s an important and strategic phone call to make. I don’t believe it’s a gaff, I believe that this was a strategic decision.”

But Eisenman says it’s difficult for China to respond to the phone call for a variety of reasons. He says Trump is not currently the president and has been receiving phone calls from many different people – not all of them presidents or leaders of countries.

“This is a relationship – as Donald Trump pointed out – where the U.S. is selling billions of dollars in arms to Taiwan,” Eisenman says. “Taking a phone call does not seem like that large of a provocation.”

A veteran state department official conceded that though his diplomatic colleagues were getting “bent out of shape” about the Taiwan phone call, he had no problem with the president-elect keeping an adversary like China “on its toes.”

But what does it say about the U.S.-China relationship if Tweets and a phone call from Trump could threaten peace in the pacific?

“The U.S-China relationship is based on what I call the ‘strategic architecture of engagement,’ and that strategic architecture builds off of these initial outreach from Nixon and Kissinger,” he says. “Today we have over 100 official dialogues with China. … This engagement architecture has grown so large that the Congress and that the people of the United States do not really know what it even entails any longer.

“But the fact that it could be so large and so robust and so far-reaching, but yet a phone call could put the relationship in some type of jeopardy, does suggest that is a rigid or a brittle architecture rather than a robust and a strong one.”

Even so, Eisenman says he doesn’t think Trump will have to make a choice between Taiwan and China anytime soon.

“There is an opening here if the United States government wants to begin to treat the Republic of China as it treated the People’s Republic of China in the 70s,” he says. “There are a lot more things that the U.S. could do with Taiwan within that rubric, without having to go and make a choice.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.