In early December, 2016, the President-Elect of the United States tweeted a message verifying that he had a phone conversation with the current President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. His cavalier attitude worried many people, from diplomacy and foreign affairs experts to those who remember the fears of the Cold War. But many, especially those whose education in world history took place after the mid-eighties in the U.S., may be confused about why the issue of Taiwan is so provocative.
During the Cold War, the United States sought an anti-Communist ally in the newly established government in Taiwan. In 1949, the Communists had successfully routed the Nationalists out of power in China and the losing party fled to Taiwan, a sub-tropical island about 100 miles off the coast of Eastern China, which was populated mostly by a mix of indigenous populations and Han Chinese people who had settled there following the Sino-Japanese war. Today, Mainland China is called the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan is called the Republic of China (ROC). The ROC still considers itself to be the true power of all of China. The U.S. was a powerful friend to Taiwan, providing protection through the 1950s from the Communists after the coup as well as securing a seat for Taiwan in the United Nations. The U.S. did and still does supply weapons and economic support to Taiwan. English is still taught in Taiwanese schools and many of the classes in its universities have instruction in English. The continued cultural and commercial influence of the U.S. in Taiwan was codified in the Taiwan Relations Act, signed by President Carter in 1979.
Although the U.S. worked to maintain its relationship with Taiwan, President Richard Nixon was concerned that the U.S. could not afford to be on bad terms with the PRC in Mainland China, especially after the falling out between China and Russia in the 1960s. In 1972, he famously went to China, a funny thing for a man who built much of his political career vilifying communism. The result of his trip was the “Shanghai Communique,” which stated that Taiwan was considered a part of China. Nixon and his advisors, including Henry Kissinger, believed that signing this document would solidify the relationship between the U.S. and China. Taiwan was replaced by China in the U.N. and the issue of Taiwan, still a democratic self-governing state with whom the U.S. continues to share an unofficial relationship, has been tense ever since.
The PRC recommends that to avoid confusion, the President ought to be referred to as the President on Taiwan instead of the President of Taiwan. The U.S. President-elect referred to Tsai Ing-wen by the latter in his tweet. Given the nebulous relationship the U.S. has with Taiwan and China’s sensitivity about it, is it possible that the President-elect was goading China? Some news media reported that he intends to use the threat of an independent Taiwan as a bargaining chip to restrict trade and the Chinese influence on commercial markets. My biggest worry is not whether his strategy will work out, but whether he is even aware of this complex history. Without carefully crafted diplomacy, how will our country fare in a globally connected world?