Perhaps it was simply ignorance –perhaps not. President-elect Donald Trump’s call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wenis represents a rebuke of a half century of U.S. foreign policy doctrine. That isn’t to say his move is for the worse.
Since rapprochement under President Nixon, the United States has walked a near counterintuitive tightrope between recognizing the legitimacy of the communist People’s Republic of China and publicly ostracizing the democratic Republic of China, better known as Taiwan. Following the so-called “One China” policy, the United States along with most other Western powers recognize the PRC while maintaining a range of informal relations with the ROC.
Let’s take a truncated journey through history to explain why. In 1912, roughly 50 years into what is referred to as the “Century of Humiliation”Sun Yat-sen played a key role in the overthrow of emperor Henry Pu Yi and was rewarded with the provisional presidency of the Republic of China.
For the following three decades, a cocktail of nationalists, warlords and communists struggled for rule over the fractured mainland. This culminated in a nearly two-decade-long civil war where Revolutionary Army and Kuomintang (KMT) leader Chiang Kai-shek ultimately fell to the Communist Party of China headed by Mao Zedong.
In 1949, Mao declared the People’s Republic of China, organizing the nation largely into the political borders we know today. Following defeat, the remnants of the ROC and the KMT decamped to Taiwan, where Chiang remained president until his death in 1975.
Fast forward to 1972, the United States formally moved to normalize relations with mainland China. Following top-secret negotiations by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Nixon was invited to visit the PRC, beginning the process of rapprochement.
Until this point, the United States continued to back the Republic of China as the legitimate government of the mainland. In fact, the ROC remained the nation’s representative at the United Nations for much of this period. However, following rapprochement the United States committed to both recognizing the PRC as the nation’s political leadership and Taiwan as a territory of mainland China.
The United States has since spent 40 years both sustaining a tempered relationship with Beijing while holding a range of informal ties with the Taiwanese. Among these ties include trade and passport facilitated through a private not-for-profit corporation and an ambiguous understanding the United States would aid the ROC if the PRC were to stage an invasion.
To this day, the PRC considers any public embrace of Taiwan as a political affront. Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman under former President George W. Bush, underscores this best in a recent tweet: “I wasn’t even allowed to refer to the gvt “of” Taiwan. (I could say gvt “on” Taiwan).”
The United States has long embraced two competing narratives. Trump has chosen—wittingly or not—to show the world something already well understood.
No matter the pretense of the communication, it demonstrates a break from fiction. Certainly this is not a welcome shift for the PRC; however, it serves a dual function: rebuffing an increasingly aggressive mainland and reassuring the world the United States is an ally of democratic governance.
The fiction of the “One China” policy—long embraced by most parties involved –is well understood. The president-elect ran on a campaign that touted both common-sense and rebuilding American leadership in the world. All said, his call with President Tsai is a positive development toward both goals.•
Ireland is a college Republican at Indiana University. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.