Uncertainty the only certainty in cross-strait ties under Trump

The China Post

By Alan Fong–For the second installment of The China Post special report on the impact of Donald Trump’s presidential election on Taiwan, we had been preparing to analyze his picks for key national security officials and his recent moderation of his isolationist rhetoric from the campaign trail.

These plans went out the window Saturday with the announcement of a 10-minute telephone call between Trump and President Tsai Ing-wen, the first between a U.S. president or president-elect with a Taiwanese head of state since the two nations severed diplomatic ties in 1979. It would be absurd to read the tea leaves after the Donald himself has delivered a shocking break with diplomatic practice. Our sudden change of content is a befitting example of the uncertainty in cross-strait relations expected under a Trump presidency. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the call, which has made headlines around world. But in addition to the fact of the call, the manner in which he announced the dialogue is also significant. He revealed the news with a tweet on his personal Twitter page: “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” With these 104 characters, Trump broke with decades of understanding between the U.S., Taiwan and mainland China. Perhaps equally important as the call itself is that Trump referred to Tsai as “President of Taiwan,” instead of her formal title of President of the Republic of China (R.O.C.). The U.S. president-elect has, albeit in an offhand way, touched on a taboo that even Taiwanese presidents avoid in international arena. The reference of Taiwan (rather than the R.O.C.) as an independent nation is a contradiction to the “one China” policy endorsed by the U.S. in the Shanghai Communique. While it is unclear whether the wording of Trump’s tweet signals a shift in U.S. policy, which the Barack Obama administration denied, or is simply a reflection of the president-elect’s lack of understanding of — or concern for — the delicacy of the “one China” policy, his words have shaken the foundation on which cross-strait relations have been handled for decades.

Realizing the explosive nature of the “Tsai-Trump call” and Trump’s tweet about it, both Taipei and Beijing gave relatively muted responses in the hope of managing the event in a professional way. It is, however, a difficult undertaking when one of the players in the relationship triangle is not into quiet diplomacy. Shortly after his first tweet and defending his decision to take the call, Trump added fuel to the fire by musing on Twitter, “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”