06 December 2016
Bull in the China shop
Unless you still consider China to be in a state of civil war and believe the People's Republic to be an illegal regime, the least you owe it diplomatically is to refrain from claiming that the successors of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan are the legitimate government of the Middle Kingdom. The U.S. has not seen Taiwan that way since the 1970s, and the Taiwan government really doesn't see itself that way anymore. The "Republic of China," however, is for all intents and purposes a sovereign state, and not merely a renegade territory, as the People's Republic might claim. The Communist government might argue that recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign nation would be equivalent to extending diplomatic recognition to the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, but in China's civil war there really was no equivalent to the Confederate secessionists. One could just as well argue that Taiwan is equivalent to where Abraham Lincoln would stand if the Confederates had taken Washington D.C. and spread north and west from there while Lincoln holed up in Maine and claimed, along with any successors, to be the real government of the United States. Depending on your ideology or your notion of international relations, China's communist revolution may have no more inherent legitimacy than the creation of a secessionist confederacy in America, no matter how powerful either entity became. Pragmatically, of course, one must accept the Communist party's rule over mainland China, but it doesn't necessarily follow from that that you must accept the Communist government's claims regarding the status of Taiwan. In short, you can question whether there's any compelling reason for Donald Trump, as President-elect, to defer to the People's Republic by refusing to take a congratulatory call from the leader of Taiwan. Trump has every reason to believe he can do business with the People's Republic, to whatever extent he desires, without taking their feelings into account -- or seeking their permission, as Trump himself characterized their demand -- when he does business with Taiwan. It would be petty of the People's Republic to alter its policy toward the U.S. on the basis of a perceived insult, especially considering that, whatever its pretensions, it does not rule Taiwan. That being said, it's fair for Americans to ask how far Trump might be willing to go to assert his freedom of action regarding Taiwan. His defensiveness on the China question, combined with his recent comments on Cuba, suggest that Trump might be less a new kind of politician than an unreconstructed Cold Warrior for the 21st century, distinguishable from the rest only by his recognition that Russia is no longer a Communist state. If he's going to make an issue out of Taiwan in order to show toughness toward the People's Republic, as his tweets in response to Chinese criticism suggest, it becomes imperative for Americans to ask whether and why Trump considers Taiwan more worth risking war over than Ukraine, the Baltic states, a "free" Syria, etc. I suspect many of his supporters here don't really care any more for Taiwan than for those other places. They may enjoy seeing Trump seem to stick it to the People's Republic, in contrast to his predecessor's perceived appeasement, but if this is all trolling for its own sake with no real commitment to Taiwanese independence, it may prove more injurious to Taiwan itself in the long run than insulting to the Commies. If they don't want to risk war over Taiwan down the line, they had better make that clear to the President-elect as soon as possible.