WHEN President-elect Donald Trump tweeted last week that he had spoken to Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen—“The President of Taiwan CALLED ME”—almost all of Washington’s Asia hands suffered palpitations.
It was the first presidential-level contact between America and Taiwan since “normalisation” in 1979, when Jimmy Carter broke off diplomatic relations with “Free China”, as Taiwan was then often known, and recognised the Communist government in Beijing instead.
At the time Congress tried to reassure Taiwan by making provisions for continued weapons sales and hinting that America would step in should the island be attacked. But, under immense Chinese pressure, America has always kept Taiwan at diplomatic arm’s length. China regards Taiwan as one of its provinces, and refuses even to honour Ms Tsai with her title of president. It has long been assumed in Washington that any American move to alter the status quo would so infuriate China that it might wage war on the island, probably dragging in America. Didn’t Mr Trump know he was playing with fire? To Washington’s Asia experts neither possible answer to that question seemed encouraging.
But then, something strange happened: nothing. No explosion of rage issued from Beijing, as many expected. The foreign minister, Wang Yi, dismissed Ms Tsai’s call as a “small step”, or “petty” as it might also be translated—a mild response by Chinese standards. In the lull, some Asia hands allowed themselves to breathe out. Perhaps, even, the breach was not wholly without precedent—Ronald Reagan had invited senior Taiwanese officials to his inauguration, after all, and got away with it.
Perhaps, even, Mr Trump gets grudging admiration for reminding the world that Taiwan deserves more recognition as a peaceful, prosperous democracy. For too long China has controlled the narrative over the island. Far from being a renegade part of China, it has in its entire history been ruled directly from the Chinese capital for not much more than a decade: briefly in the second half of the 19th century, and from 1945-49. Never have the Communists ruled Taiwan, so shouldn’t their bullying be decried more often? As for the “one China” idea that the Communist Party insists upon, America has never agreed to it; formally, it merely “acknowledges” that both China and Taiwan hold to the principle that there is but one China. That acknowledgment was made in the 1970s, with dictatorships in Beijing and Taipei both claiming to rule all of China. Today, a democratic Taiwan has no such pretensions. Why should American policy be set in stone?
For now, many Taiwanese are basking in Mr Trump’s attention. They hope for further gestures when he is president—a free-trade deal, perhaps, which Mr Trump’s advisers say they are keen on striking with Taiwan, and more American weapons. There have been rumours that Mr Trump is mulling another possible flourish before then: a meeting in New York in January with Ms Tsai, who will be travelling to Guatemala, one of a handful of countries that officially recognise Taiwan. Ms Tsai’s office dismisses talk of this as “excessive speculation”. But were such an encounter to happen, it would cause rapture in Taiwan. It would also trigger even greater palpitations in Washington.
China would still play things cool. For a country that craves predictability in its external environment, a Trumpian America has suddenly become the wild card. But, Chinese officials remind themselves, using an old saying, the way to deal with 10,000 changes is not yourself to change. Some Chinese policymakers are pessimistic about relations with America under Mr Trump, noting his staunchly protectionist views and his inclination to improve ties with Russia in ways that might leave China isolated. (Anti-China tweets from Mr Trump reinforce the downbeat view.) Others are more hopeful, seeing a transactional president minded to cut deals with China, America’s essential counterpart on everything from trade to security. The appointment of the China-friendly governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, as ambassador to Beijing is a fillip. For now, the regime will bide its time.
Yet, far from diminishing, the risks will grow. One, in the near term, lies in the nature of Mr Trump’s team. Almost the entire Republican establishment of seasoned Asia experts has refused to serve under him. So those handling policy towards Asia are notable for their inexperience or for their ideological inclination to favour Taiwan over those once disparaged as “ChiComs”.
For all Taiwan’s virtues, this should be a worry. America’s relationship with China is broader, more complex and far, far more vital than its one with Taiwan. Making the running on Taiwan implies disregard for the bigger relationship. China’s help on many global issues, including counter-terrorism, is essential. And there is an urgent need for agreement over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme, which is developing dangerously fast. Only China can make North Korea change course. Finding the means to cajole or coerce China to act should be an American priority, from which much of the rest of Asia policy should flow. Yet Mr Trump’s team appears to be giving little thought to this.
Stop that tiger, I wanna get off
And then comes the risk of increased Chinese neuralgia over Taiwan during a Trump presidency. Years of propaganda and “patriotic education” have fuelled an irrational nationalism over Taiwan among ordinary Chinese. President Xi Jinping himself has said that the Taiwan “problem” can no longer be left to future generations. For now, the nationalism is in check. After all, officials claim that, for all the mischief by Taiwan’s splittist politicians, ordinary folk are true Chinese patriots. But should Mr Trump stir things up, it may dawn on the Chinese that the claim is not true, and that Taiwanese politicians promote de facto independence because that is what people want. If public anger grows, Mr Xi will be riding a tiger from which he will struggle to dismount. By then, it will no longer be possible to wait and see.