Donald Trump recently took a phone call from Tsai Ing-Wen, President of Taiwan, earning the ire of China’s leaders and creating worries about what Trump’s presidency might spell for the stability of East Asia. To understand why a small island in the Pacific can create so many waves takes some contextualizing.
Formosa, the island Taiwan is on, for a long time was not necessarily Chinese. The first real tie between the island and the mainland came from migrants from the Fujian province and then from the court of the Qing dynasty, who wanted the island to keep it out of Japanese hands. The Qing collapsed and the island went to Japan until the start of the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. When the Nationalists lost they led a large and sudden migration into Taiwan, where the US would protect them from the Communists.
The Nationalists and the Communists both saw themselves as the rightful government of China and saw China as one country in an ongoing civil war. Now many people see Taiwan and China as separate but they are still in the eyes of international law one country: China. Taiwan is really the Republic of China (ROC) and is the unrecognized, unofficial China and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the official, recognized China. Up until 1972 it was not yet internationally acknowledged that Taiwan was a part of China. Nixon, Mao Zedong, and the President of the ROC Chiang Kai-Shek agreed to a communique that recognized China’s desire to be a single, unified country and recognized Taiwan as a part of China. In seven years time and after two more communiques the PRC became the internationally recognized China and the ROC became the rogue. This also meant that the US agreed to stop diplomatic dealings with the ROC – a part of why China and much of the world sees Trump talking openly with the current Taiwanese President as an affront. Since the communiques no US President has directly spoken to the Taiwanese President in this way.
During all of the negotiations the people of Taiwan themselves were not entirely convinced they were a part of China. The native Taiwanese – descendants of the Fujian migrants who came over prior to the Nationalist emigration – chafed and rioted underneath an autocratic ROC that gave fewspots in government to indigenous or native Taiwanese people. Gradually the ROC’s autocratic grip slipped and the island became a democracy.
The leaders of two separate Chinas:
Chiang Kai-Shek of the Nationalists (left) and Mao Zedong of the Communists (right).
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) helped the democracy take root and rejected the one China consensus and asserted that Formosa is not the ROC but simply Taiwan. In the recent Taiwanese election the DPP won big and their candidate Tsai Ing-Wen became President of the ROC. Tsai represents a turn from her predecessor – who both accepted the one China policy and was more open to work with the mainland – and so to China Trump’s phone call represents a justification of that turn. Trump did not receive a phone call from any president of Taiwan, but one that China has been actively wary of.
To make matters even more tense, China’s new President Xi Jinping is also notably more aggressive than his predecessor Hu Jintao. In his term so far Xi has aggressively pushed Chinese claims in territories it contests with its neighbors, such as the North China Sea, the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) islands and of course Taiwan. Xi also led an anti-corruption plan that saw some of his top political rivals jailed and an internet crackdown that saw a redoubling of censorship efforts.
Perhaps most importantly to the Taiwanese, Xi stepped in during Hong Kong’s elections and barred two separatist candidates from taking up positions they were elected to. China gives Hong Kong a good deal more leeway in self-governance than other provinces and promises this leeway to Taiwan if Taiwan unites with the mainland. Xi stepping in and changing election results – and the large protests that followed in Hong Kong – made it clear that if Taiwan joins with the mainland it will not be allowed to leave, will not be so independent, and may have to deal with domestic discontent for years to come.
President-Elect Trump openly broke diplomatic practice established by years of negotiation to take a call from one of Taiwan’s most controversial presidents while an aggressive and nationalistic leader helms China. This is why many experts have balked, why China’s government has claimed this shows Trump’s dangerous inexperience, and why the phone call between Tsai Ing-Wen and Trump is as discussed as it is.