Trump, A New Challenger: Analysis of the Phone Call Between Donald Trump and Tsai Ying-wen
By Richard Wang
Like a child starting to challenge the boss in an adventure game, Trump finally stepped onto the stage after his election to begin his unprecedented challenge to the rules and protocols of international diplomacy.
However, no one expected that he would put his words into action so quickly. He received a controversial congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ying-wen. Tsai Ying-wen initiated the phone call, which lasted for 10 minutes. Trump and Tsai Ying-wen congratulated each other for winning the elections. On a superficial level, it seemed to be just a friendly phone call. However, the call had important political ramifications that shook the US, Taiwan, mainland China and, consequently, the whole world.
Since former President Jimmy Carter shifted the US’s political concentration from Taiwan to mainland China and conceded that Taiwan belongs to mainland China, no president has conducted phone conversations with the Taiwanese leader.
But Trump broke the rule.
The phone call was surprising, but, in some ways, predictable. Since his election campaign, Trump has attacked China many times. He has promised that he will put a 45% tariff on mainland Chinese exports, and has also criticized mainland China’s massive military complex. Moreover, Trump has surrounded himself with so-called “China Hawks,” like Peter Navarro, the author of Death by China, and Rex Tillerson, who vowed to deny China access to islands in the South Mainland China Sea. All of these actions illustrate his negative view of China. He has even started to question the “one-China-policy.” The “one-China-Policy” dictates there is only one China in the world, and it was acknowledged by the US in 1979. Mainland China’s government holds tightly onto “one China-policy,” which has serious implications on the legitimacy of all of China governments and the patriotism of Chinese people. But recently, Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview that “everything is under negotiation, including ‘one China.'”
Mainland China’s government was infuriated by Trump’s phone call. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not accept the Republic of China (POC) as a legitimate ruler in legal terms. The constitution of PRC explicitly states that “Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People's Republic of China. It is the lofty duty of the entire Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland.” Mainland China’s government believes that any diplomatic relations with other countries are built upon the fundamental “One-China-Policy”.
Mainland China’s government has held onto this tenet even more tightly since Tsai Ying-wen came to power, as she belongs to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which supports Taiwanese independence. Mainland China’s government has criticized Tsai Ying-wen many times, and has warned her not to overstep the “One-China- Policy” bottom line, and to stay away from her predecessor Lee Teng-hui who supports normalization of Taiwan as an independent country. At the same time, mainland China’s government also criticized Trump for challenging its most fundamental principle, and for testing the relationship between two largest countries in the world. It warned Trump that if Trump really overturns the "one Mainland China" principle, it would create such a crisis with mainland China he'd have little time to do anything else. The Chinese foreign minister gave Trump an explicit warning, saying: “those who go against the One-Mainland China-policy are lifting a rock only to drop it on their feet”.
However, Trump does not seem to take these criticisms seriously. Responding to the protests and warns, he tweeted, "Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call." He tried to refer to the common interest between the US and Taiwan to justify the phone call. However, his call actually revealed the attitude of the US to Taiwanese independence. His tweets reflect that he is still a novice when it comes to politics. He did not understand that the phone call might change the American relationship with both Taiwan and mainland China, since the phone call might be taken a sign of recovering US diplomatic relations with Taiwan and negating the acknowledgment of mainland China’s government as the sole government of the Chinese people. Being a novice can be an advantage, but it can also cause harm. On one hand, he does not have strong relations with the traditional political clique, so he is free to reform and change political conventions. On the other hand, he does not have any experience serving in a public position. He tends to turn a blind eye to the historical consensus and judges serious diplomatic affairs based on his intuition and whim rather than reasonable evidence. It will be a tragedy for the country if the leader lets his intuitions blind his eyes.
In some ways, Trump is quite like his Taiwanese counterpart, Tsai, the first woman elected to the office. Tsai lacks experience, as illustrated by the fact that she failed to anticipate the intensely negative reaction of mainland China. Otherwise, she would have not made the phone call, especially since mainland China’s government is seriously concerned about Tsai’s policy, and doubts her support of 1992 Consenses an agreement reached between Taiwan and China, advocating that both sides recognize there is only one China, but agree to differ on its definition. After she called Trump, mainland China burst out in strong protest, criticizing Tsai Ying-wen for disobeying 1992 Consensus. Tsai Ying-wen responded to her critics at a small meeting with American journalists in Taipei, saying, "Of course I have to stress that one phone call does not mean a policy shift. The phone call was a way for us to express our respect for the U.S. election as well as congratulate President-elect Trump on his win." Her reaction showed that she did not understand the importance of the phone call either.
Clearly, the newly elected American President is drastically different from more traditional ones. He has not only endangered ties with mainland China with his phone call, but has also infuriated Muslim countries with his recent “Muslim ban.” Trump has a vision for changing the country, but is surrounded by controversy. It is also possible that he has an extraordinary plan to “make America great again,” which a typical politician can neither expect nor understand. What we are sure is that Trump will have four years in the White House, and we will have four years to analyze the changes he makes.
When a child plays a new video game, the new challenger will lose to the boss the first time, second time, and probably the third time. But he will learn through the experience. He will become stronger and more sophisticated. Finally, he will succeed. As a new challenger in the international political stage, Trump’s starting point is quite high. Hopefully, Trump will regard himself as a new challenger, rather than a hero. Only then can he learn from his mistakes and become a sophisticated leader.
“This article was published in a collaboration with East Asia Collective, a student organization dedicated to raising awareness about East Asian-related international affairs. Find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/pieeastasia/”