Reckless Diplomacy: The Potential Consequences Of Tsai Ing-Wen’s Phone Conversation With Donald Trump

On 2 December 2016, the President-elect of the US, Donald Trump, picked up a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. According to Trump’s Twitter, the main conversation revolved around Ms. Tsai’s congratulating  Trump on his victory in the 2016 US presidential election.

However, the phone conversation between Mr. Trump and Ms. Tsai has appeared on almost every major media’s headlines over the weekend.

The phone call has clearly become a major international event because the call has broken the US diplomatic protocol towards China. The US ended its official diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 and started to acknowledge the 1979 ‘‘One China’’ policy. According to the ‘‘One China’’ policy, the US acknowledges the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal entity that represents the Chinese people. In light of the policy and in order to maintain a healthy Sino-American relation,  the President-elect of the US has not directly spoken with the Taiwanese leaders for four decades. Trump’s reckless, or intentional, diplomatic conduct of this event has clearly broken the US diplomatic protocol and may cause further damages to Sino-American relations and the regional strategic environment.

China has lodged complaints towards the US because of the phone call. A spokesman for China’s foreign minister, Geng Shuang, stated in a statement ‘‘It must be pointed out that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory. The government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing China.’’ According to the Guardian, China further urged ‘‘the relevant US side’’ to ‘‘cautiously and properly’’ deal with Taiwan issues to avoid ‘‘unnecessary interference’’ in the Sino-US relationship.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, downplayed the issue to a ‘‘small trick’’ played by Taiwan. He claimed that the US would not ignore and damage the Sino-US relationship. However, other Chinese media channels, such as the Global Times and Xinhua, took a tougher line on the issue. The Global Times and Xinhua urged and warned Trump not to damage the Sino-US relationship in his coming term.

On the US side, media and government officials also expressed their concerns. According to the Guardian, Evan Medeiros, the Asia director at the White House national security council, stated that the phone call is ‘‘a highly provocative action, of historic proportions.’’ He also added that the phone call might fundamentally change China’s perception towards the upcoming Trump administration from positive to negative. Evan Medeiros said Trump’s move is ‘‘setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.’’

Although China, Taiwan and the US have all expressed that no major changes will occur in terms of the US diplomatic conduct towards the Taiwan issue, concerns raised upon whether Trump will conduct international relations accordingly. During his presidential campaign, Trump has severely blamed China and showed that he would take a hard-line approach towards China. If Trump is to change the US approach to the Taiwan issue, he could cause major damage to Sino-US relations.

Why is the Sino-US relationship important in the current world? Strategically speaking, China and the US are the two most capable global powers that can determine the outcomes of regional or even global strategic arrangement. Professor Hugh White at the Australian National University Strategic and Defense Studies Centre argued that only China and the US have the power to determine the strategic arrangement of the region. If Sino-US strategic competition intensifies, it is anticipated that the region will be less stable and secure over the coming decades.

Dangerously, Taiwan Strait is one of the most dangerous regional flash points in the region. China and the US have had incidents before over the Taiwan Strait, such as the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. The reckless move by Mr. Trump, and Ms. Tsai, could possibly ruin the efforts paid by the previous leader of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, to mitigate the tensions between the mainland and Taiwan. If a crisis broke out over the Taiwan Strait during Trump’s term, the potential consequences would be more severe than the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis as China’s military has undergone a substantial process of modernization. Therefore, Trump’s administration should pay close attention to how it handles the Taiwan issue in order to avoid a further escalation of tensions.