President-elect Donald Trump put the Washington establishment into a tizzy by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen.
Trump’s decision to talk to his counterpart in Taiwan put Communist China on notice that there is a new sheriff in town, and that the incoming Trump administration will not be bound by the feckless and impotent China policy of the past.
In 1979, when President Jimmy Carter made the decision to recognize Communist China and cut ties with Taiwan, China was a backward society still struggling to feed itself, and Taiwan was a repressive military dictatorship under martial law. The idea was that the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China would develop warm relations and alienate the then-U.S.S.R., while leaving the now-isolated and unpopular regime in Taipei little choice but to “unify” with the communist mainland.
Of course, that did not happen.
Far from becoming a bosom buddy of the United States, China rapidly developed into Asia’s preeminent military power. That’s thanks in part to the inflow of U.S. dollars resulting from America’s decision to grant Most Favored Nation or “MFN” trading status to the communist nation.
That influx of cash allowed China to plow vast amounts of cash into the modernization of the military, which now boasts an impressive submarine fleet, modern fighter jets, an aircraft carrier, an arsenal of missiles trained on Taiwan, and a naval force that has essentially seized control of much of the South China Sea.
Communist China’s rapid economic growth has also allowed Beijing to step in as North Korea’s primary benefactor, underwriting Pyongyang’s very existence, and enabling the Kim regime to expand a nuclear program.
Carter was wrong about Taiwan too.
Throughout the 1980s, Taiwan became an economic powerhouse, and this remarkable economic transformation was followed by political reforms in the 1990s that saw the lifting of martial law, and the creation of a flourishing multi-party democracy – the first in the history of the Chinese speaking world.
So profound was Taiwan’s economic and political transformation that the “Republic of China” (Taiwan’s official national name) went from being one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid at the end of World War II to underwriting development projects in some of the world’s poorest countries.
In short, the world has changed. So why hasn’t America’s China policy?
For more than 30 years, American leaders have bent over backward to coddle Beijing, shunning Taiwan’s duly elected leaders, and subjecting them to indignities including refusing to use the titles of “President” and “Vice President” when referring to Taiwan’s administration.
Taiwan’s high-ranking officials have been refused visits to the United States. Meanwhile, China’s dictators have been afforded lavish White House receptions, and illegitimate despots such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been allowed to deliver scathing anti-American screeds at Columbia University.
President-elect Donald Trump shattered that paradigm when he decided America would no longer ask Beijing’s butchers for permission to take a phone call from a friend.
This is incredibly important because it suggests that Trump may bring a new perspective to the Taiwan question, one that rejects the anachronistic “that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” mentality of the State Department. It also indicates that the incoming administration may no longer respond to China’s belligerent activities around the world by kowtowing to the demands of the People’s Republic.
While this is a good start, much more can be done to improve our relations with democratic Taiwan, and Trump’s first opportunity will be in the coming weeks when President Tsai will request a transit in the United States on her way to visit Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Latin America.
In the past, panda-hugging American presidents such as George W. Bush have relegated Taiwan’s presidents to transits in far flung places like Alaska, effectively preventing them from holding face-to-face discussions with U.S. congressmen, senators, and other officials. Even so, Beijing has always complained about these stopovers – along with every effort by Taiwan to engage with the world (even children are not immune from China’s bullying, as Beijing demands that Taiwan’s powerhouse little league baseball compete under the name “Chinese Taipei” at the annual Little League World Series in Pennsylvania).
China has continued this tradition by demanding that Trump block President Tsai’s impending visit to the U.S. Trump should refuse this demand.
In fact, not only should the president-elect approve President Tsai’s visit to the U.S., he should allow her to transit in Washington, D.C., enabling her to hold direct talks with high-ranking American officials, including members of his cabinet.
If possible, he should consider a personal face-to-face meeting with Ms. Tsai himself. Such a meeting would reassure Taiwan that we respect our democratic allies, and send an even stronger message to our allies in Asia that we will not abandon them when it comes to China’s outrageous behavior in the South China Sea.
Trump should also consider longer-term measures to modernize our relationship with Taiwan, many of which I proposed or supported as a Member of Congress during the last decade.
These include formally lifting our self-imposed ban on high-level meetings between senior U.S. and Taiwanese officials, supporting Taiwan’s re-admission to the United Nations, and a normalization of relations between our two countries – including the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
After all, if we can sit down with Islamist Iranian regime officials that fund terrorism, why can’t we conduct high-level talks with officials from a responsible, democratic nation like Taiwan? And if we can honor Raul Castro by opening a Cuban Embassy in Washington, why not a Taiwanese one as well?
Such steps – particularly a dual-recognition framework that extends diplomatic respect to both China and Taiwan –wouldn’t just help reflect the global changes of the last 40 years, it would also help facilitate evenhanded talks between Taipei and Beijing that might yield a diplomatic breakthrough between the two rivals. That’s something that Taiwan’s isolation has failed to achieve in more than three decades.
Such an approach is also not without precedent: For many years the world recognized East Germany and West Germany, an arrangement that eventually led to a unification under a democratic government.
Too often in Washington, particularly when it comes to China, tradition is a word people use to reject creative thinking. “The Call Heard Round the World” shows that President-elect Trump is willing question that dogma. Here’s hoping it was just the beginning.
Tom Tancredo represented Colorado in the US House of Representatives 1999-2009. He was a Member of the House Committee on International Relations, and a received the Order of the Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon from the government of Taiwan in 2008.