A contentious move to accept a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen by President-elect Donald Trump last week has sparked unease in China and throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The call marked the first time a president or president-elect had spoken directly to Taiwan’s President since 1979. China views Taiwan as a “breakaway province” and does not formally recognize Tsai Ing-wen as its President. While the US is Taiwan’s most important ally and their largest supplier of military equipment, it has also acknowledged the “one China” policy for decades and as a result, the two countries do not have formal relations.
Taiwan’s economy is the fifth largest in the Asia-Pacific region, yet its membership in an international organization, such as the United Nations is limited. The president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy expressed concern over this by stating the following: “we are in this vibrant democracy, but people always forget about us.” President Tsai Ing-wen expressed her hope that the US would support Taiwan going forward with greater international participation and closer co-operation.
While some have viewed Mr. Trump’s move as admirable as it gives recognition to a peaceful democratic nation, it has also caused apprehension about the way in which China will react. China’s Foreign Minister described the call as a “petty trick” by Taiwan and an article in the China Daily stated that the call “for Trump, exposed nothing but his and his transition team’s inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs.” The possibility of a violent outcome would come at Taiwan’s expense, as a war could be waged on the island if China becomes increasingly disgruntled with a relationship between the US and Taiwan.
China is an extremely important ally for the US, as agreement on global issues, such as combatting terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear agenda is essential. Further, China is the US’s largest trade partner and the biggest foreign holder of US treasury bonds. The White House has reacted to the call by reassuring Beijing that Washington would continue to support the one China policy, and the US transition adviser Stephen Yates also stated that “Beijing should not overreact” to the call.
Since the call, China has changed its previous position on a US proposed ceasefire in Aleppo, and has instead sided with Russia to veto the resolution; a move that some believe to be a statement of defiance to punish the US for Trump’s behavior. The incident raises further questions about the president-elect and his ability to understand difficult foreign policy situations and their potentially catastrophic outcomes.