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Donald Receives Phone Call From Taiwan

2016-12-04

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Who is Taiwan?  Well, Taiwan is an island a hundred miles off the coast of mainland China.  Its current population is about 23-1/2 million.  Its current government was formed when the “nationalist” Chinese military forces, hard pressed by Chinese Communist armies, fled the mainland and established a government in exile in 1949.  Late in 1949, Mao Tse Tung and the Communist military forces declared a unified “People’s Republic of China” (PRC.)  The PRC currently includes approximately 1.357 billion people.   (Data from Wikipedia.)

The government in Taiwan styled itself the “Republic of China” and was recognized until the 1970’s  by the United States and the United Nations as the legitimate government of all China.  There have been no significant military hostilities between Taiwan and PRC since 1949.

Western governments generally followed the US lead, although many began to trade with the PRC quietly.  The Soviet Union at first recognized the PRC, but a falling-out led to a brief border war between the two countries in 1969.  As a result of the discord between the two nominally Communist countries, the PRC decided to cultivate better relations with the United States.

In the early 1970’s, then-President Richard Nixon initiated a diplomatic “tilt” towards the PRC that eventually resulted in the PRC’s obtaining Taiwan’s seat in the United Nations Security Council.  Since then, US policy has included an overt diplomatic relationship with PRC and a covert relationship with Taiwan that includes quantities of weapons designed for defense.   In 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter severed formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan as part of the “one China” policy.  For more than 35 years, the leaders of the two countries have not spoken with each other openly.

The covert US relationship with Taiwan has included Obama’s sale of $1.8 billion in arms, but no telephone calls, until this past Friday, when Donald, the President-elect, took a phone call from the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen.  Parenthetically, Tsai is the first female president of Taiwan.  The telephone call was pre-arranged, and news of the contact was on the pages of Taiwan’s newspapers before the call even took place.

Although expert reaction to the phone call was generally negative, many conservatives and Republican congressmen approved of the move.  One rabid conservative who has advocated “playing the Taiwan card” is former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton.  He visited Trump Tower on Friday, although no reason for the visit was mentioned.

Donald had excoriated PRC during his campaign for “currency manipulation” and its exploitative trade relationship with the US.  He even claimed that he would slap a 45 percent tariff on imports from China.  Many conservatives have also advocated a “get tough” policy with PRC and a “pivot” towards Taiwan.

Not coincidentally, 93 year-old Henry Kissinger met with Donald two weeks ago and with President Xi on Friday.  Kissinger had been Nixon’s shuttle diplomat and helped develop the “one China” policy that resulted in Carter’s actions.  Kissinger’s talk with Donald centered on the US relationship to the PRC, and his talk with Xi on Friday covered Donald’s approach to China.  PRC government spokesmen have reacted cautiously to Friday’s phone call; President Xi Jinping himself told reporters, “We, on the Chinese side, are watching the situation very closely. Now it is in the transition period.”

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos describes the real risk behind Donald’s telephone call with Taiwan:

Trump has also shown himself to be highly exploitable on subjects that he does not grasp. He is surrounding himself with ideologically committed advisers who will seek to use those opportunities when they can. We should expect similar moments of exploitation to come on issues that Trump will regard as esoteric, such as the Middle East, health care, immigration, and entitlements.
For a piece I published in September, about what Trump’s first term could look like, I spoke to a former Republican White House official whom Trump has consulted, who told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” It turns out that is half of the problem; the other half is that he has surrounded himself with people who know how much he doesn’t know. Since Election Day, Trump has largely avoided receiving intelligence briefings, either because he doesn’t think it’s important that he receive them or because he just doesn’t care about them. George W. Bush, in the first months of 2001, ignored warnings about Osama bin Laden. Only in our darkest imaginings can we wonder what warnings Trump is ignoring now.

It seems that the President-elect is listening to rabidly conservative Republican experts and following the advice of those who appear poised to steer his opinion to match their pet peeves.  This means that US government policy is likely to follow arch-conservative, “alt-right” lines.  There is likely to be considerable confusion and disturbance among US allies and there may be erratic changes in policy.

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