Trump recently broke from established diplomacy by taking a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, thereby acknowledging the leader of a rogue nation that – though many countries trade with – most acknowledge as an unofficial China. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi called the move a “little trick” the Taiwanese president played on the US. Many people in Taiwan feel ecstatic, though President Tsai herself is only cautiously optimistic. She stated to journalists that, “one phone call does not mean a policy shift.” Analysts and pundits are similarly trying to understand the good, the bad, and the ugly in the phone call between Presidents Trump and Tsai.
Some conservative pundits and experts have lauded the move as strengthening an important alliance with one of East Asia’s largest economies and strongest democracies. Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen says the move shows Trump is “an outsider who will not be encumbered by the same Lilliputian diplomatic threads that tied down previous administrations.” Stephen Yates, a foreign policy adviser to Dick Cheney, also complimented the move as making transparent diplomacy that has long existed in the shadows, saying Taiwan’s independent government is “a reality that is obvious to average Americans, Taiwanese and Chinese, but something diplomats like to pretend isn’t so.”
Yet other foreign policy experts have noted that this move is as much about Taiwan as it is about China and North Korea. Paul Haenle, a former White House adviser and director of a foreign policy focused think-tank, notes that the US may have to work with China to scale back North Korea’s aggressive nuclear posturing and “[w]hen tension over Taiwan is at the forefront of U.S.-China relations, it can consume [the US’s] agenda.” Haenle also points out how Trump’s response to the call weakened it as a potential power move. Instead of taking full onus for the call, Trump claimed that it was unplanned and happened mostly on Tsai Ing-Wen’s impetus. Shifting the blame on to Tsai Ing-Wen may make Trump look better in the eyes of uneasy voters but it plays into Beijing’s strategy to blame the event on Taiwan’s leadership so that they have an excuse to punish the island later and an opportunity to paint the US as reckless and unready.
In the end President Tsai Ing-Wen is right to note how little the call could mean. The follow-up to the call is what this move should truly be judged on. If Trump backs up Taiwan when China seeks to punish the island for this misstep than Trump might have bolstered a strong East Asian democracy and showed how the US can protect its allies (though antagonizing China – even to protect friendly democracies – comes at its own risk). However, if Trump backs down he will seem full of hot air to allies and rivals in Asia. Much rides on how Trump integrates this move into his strategy and how intentional his foreign policy is, as well as how China chooses to respond if the stakes raise further. The question now is whether this phone call is intentional or impulsive.