Donald Trump has now broken with this careful charade by becoming the first US president to speak directly with a Taiwanese counterpart (at least publicly). Though Mike Pence went on television
Sunday to try to mollify all parties by asserting the call was simply "a moment of courtesy," his attempts to diffuse the tension fail to address the fact that, given the personalities and context involved, Trump's move has the potential to grow into a perfect storm: a downward spiral, where Beijing retaliates and Taipei stiffens its resolve in response.
Taiwan's President Tsai already faced a headache in cross-strait relations even without adding a call to Trump into the mix. Since she began running away from her opponent in the presidential election polls in summer of 2015, Beijing has been adamant that it will only engage with her government should Tsai embrace the "1992 consensus
." That agreement, openly accepted by Tsai's predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, holds that there is only one China, although it does not define which government, precisely, is the rightful ruler of said China. Both the PRC and Taiwan's Republic of China government have maintained they can claim that mantle.
Tsai, as the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, which was founded on a sense of unique Taiwanese identity, could not enter into a straightforward embrace of the "1992 consensus." Beijing rejected her offer at compromise -- accepting the "historical fact" of the 1992 talks that led to the consensus and pledging to uphold the "status quo" in cross-strait relations -- and severed official communication channels with Tsai's government the day of her inauguration.
Beijing seems inclined to place the blame mostly on Taiwan, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissing the Trump-Tsai conversation as a "little trick" played by Taiwan. China may seek to apply coercive economic measures to Taiwan to "punish" Tsai and her administration; such a move would doubtless outrage Taiwanese. China's attempts to play the barefaced bully have historically backfired, pushing Taiwan farther away from Beijing's desired goal of unification rather than bringing it closer. That was the case in 1996, when Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait
in an attempt to prevent the re-election of Taiwanese nativist president Lee Teng-hui; Lee won in a landslide. Likewise, Beijing's attempts to freeze out the only previous DPP president, Chen Shui-bian
, forced Chen to make an abrupt about-face; he went from advocating liberalized cross-strait economic ties in his first term to pursuing a referendum on Taiwan's UN membership in his second.
Cross-strait ties were already at their frostiest in eight years; this phone call to Trump ups the ante at a sensitive time for China, which will soon undergo its own leadership transition. In fall 2017, the Communist Party holds its 19th Congress. This gathering, held once every five years, will extol the achievements of the Xi Jinping-led government, cement his approach in party doctrine, and reshuffle the top echelons of leadership. While Xi will stay on, five of those on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee are due for retirement. There are also persistent rumors that current No. 2, Premier Li Keqiang, could see himself officially replaced
, forced to play scapegoat for slowing economic growth.
What this means is that domestic political wrangling is at its peak in China at the moment. In such times, Beijing would keenly prefer a quiet external environment; that's likely a large contributing factor to the current calm in the South China Sea. However, should a crisis emerge -- such as, say, a paradigm shift in the US-Taiwan relationship -- China's current leaders will feel immense pressure to respond swiftly and harshly.
Though not a democracy, Beijing is not as insulated from public opinion as one might imagine. Chinese leaders are incredibly wary of the risk of being outflanked by nationalistic sentiment on the cross-strait issue. Beijing's censors have moved to block conversation about the Trump-Tsai phone call on social media, hoping to prevent a groundswell of public anger. But if the trend toward an open US-Taiwan relationship continues, Beijing won't be able to keep a lid on domestic fury forever.
In the United States as well, uncertainty rules. Trump will not officially take office for another six weeks, but even as President-elect he has the ability to send strong foreign policy signals. The question is whether he understands those signals -- or even means to send them.
His conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is a prime example. When Trump assured Sharif
, "I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems," did the US President-elect realize that would be read in Islamabad as an offer to intervene in the toxic Pakistan-India dispute over Kashmir?
The phone call with Tsai is even more complex. Though, as he pointed out on Twitter, Tsai placed the call, Taiwan's presidential office spokesman Alex Huang confirmed that Trump's team helped arrange it. "Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact," Huang told Reuters
. Several Trump affiliates, including adviser Peter Navarro and rumored secretary of state candidate John Bolton, have argued for a much closer relationship with Taiwan, despite (or even gleefully because of) the immense anger that would cause in China.
That means Trump's call with Tsai can be interpreted in two ways. One, it could be a simple nicety extended to a foreign leader, without much forethought on Trump's side. That lack of understanding would be a dangerous sign for the future of US foreign policy in general, but not an indication that US-Taiwan (and thus US-China) relations are about to change forever.
However, the call could also be taken as a sign of Trump's future Taiwan policy. Trump's latest tweets, which take a biting
tone in criticizing China's actions on currency, taxing US goods, and the South China Sea, certainly indicate that possibility.
If Trump's advisers are advocating a wholesale change in the way Washington relates to Taipei, that could very well translate to actual policy decisions. This week, it's a phone call; next year, we could see US Cabinet officials traveling to Taiwan, or Taiwan's President making a visit to the United States. This would shake the foundations of the awkward diplomacy that has kept peace across the Taiwan Straits -- and between the United States and China -- since Washington normalized ties with Beijing in 1979.
For now, uncertainty reigns in the United States, and that sets the stage for a crisis, especially if neither Taiwan nor China can correctly interpret what Trump will do next.