Stop Freaking Out, Donald Trump’s Taiwan Phone Call Was a Good Thing

For too long, the West has cowered when Beijing huffed and puffed about Taiwan. Trump is finally calling its bluff.

Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks Donald Trump has just put America on the road to war.

In reality, the opposite may be true. The president-elect may have taken the first steps to stabilize East Asia.

On Thursday and Friday, Mr. Trump spoke over the phone with his counterparts in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Singapore. Yet by far the most controversial, and consequential, conversation occurred on Friday, when he exchanged pleasantries for 10 minutes with Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwan leader.

Trump spoke with Tsai without consulting the White House or the State Department. He also bypassed the American Institute in Taiwan, America’s liaison office in Taipei.

Critics jumped at the lack of coordination. Senator Murphy, in a tweet, called the phone conversations “major pivots in foreign policy w/out any plan.” And then the Connecticut Democrat dropped this line on the public: “That’s how wars start.”

Murphy, by raising the prospect of titanic armed struggle, could not have been thinking of Trump’s conversations with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. The president-elect may have made a few misguided comments while discussing affairs with them, but these mistakes were innocuous.

The words with Tsai, however, caught everyone’s attention. America has shunned Taiwan since 1979 when President Carter broke off diplomatic ties with Taipei in order to establish them with Beijing. As a result of that policy, today Washington pretends that a vibrant democratic society of 24 million people is not a country, although it has all the attributes of one.

Pretend no more. The Trump transition team’s readout of the Tsai conversation signaled a momentous shift in direction. The president-elect essentially recognized the island as a sovereign state by calling her “President of Taiwan.”

Beijing, on the other hand, claims Taiwan, taking the view that it is merely the 34th province of the People’s Republic of China.

Because the Trump-Tsai call ignored China’s “core” interest in Taiwan, many analysts and diplomats—not to mention junior senators from Connecticut—believe Beijing would go to war with the U.S. Murphy, therefore, draws a straight line from the phone call heard round the world to Armageddon.

But perhaps Murphy and others should put the end-of-the-world worries on hold.

Trump did not “wing” that momentous foreign policy decision, as former diplomat Christopher Hill charged Friday evening on CNN. Stephen Yates, on the Trump transition team and a thoughtful voice on China in conservative circles, was reported to have been in Taiwan when the call from Tsai took place, fueling speculation he helped plan the event. Moreover, it would have been unlikely for the cautious Tsai to make the call without knowing in advance it would be answered, especially because a rejected call would create major political embarrassment for her and her party. So the conversation looks like the opening gambit by Trump to reorient China policy.

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And despite the hand-wringing from the American foreign policy establishment, documented in a Fox News op-ed by Yates and Christian Whiton, a State Department official in the Bush years, the Tsai call could help avoid conflict.

How so? The Chinese have done an almost-perfect job of convincing others that they are willing to start hostilities if that is what is necessary to win Taiwan. Therefore, most everyone else has been intimidated. Seeing how well belligerence has worked, Beijing has ramped up its tough tactics to bolster its frightening image.

Accordingly, Chinese leaders have, over time, employed more dire-sounding language. In October 2013, for example, Xi Jinping ominously put a time limit on the resolution of the Taiwan problem. “Looking further ahead,” he said to a senior Taiwan envoy, “the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”

Trump, by calling Taiwan a separate state, indirectly told the Chinese he is not afraid of them, saying, in effect, he does not respect their most important concerns. He is, in a real sense, starting a new relationship with Beijing, putting everything China has won in the past four decades back on the table.

Henry Kissinger, in the Chinese capital in the last few days, has tried to reassure Xi about the inherent stability of U.S. policy. Nonetheless, Trump shortly after told the Chinese he is not interested in pleasing them. The president-elect has, therefore, given them a reason to act more in line with his wishes.

If the Tsai call was to create a bargaining chip, as some believe, Trump could be looking to establish a grand bargain, willing to negotiate trade, North Korea, Taiwan, and a dozen other subjects with nothing out-of-bounds.

It’s more likely, however, that the grand negotiator of Fifth Avenue was reverting to his strong “America First” impulse. If so, Chinese leaders are in for a tough four years.

American policy, from the end of the Cold War to today, has been to put Chinese interests first by trying to integrate China into the existing international system. This extraordinarily generous and patient policy looked like it was working until the end of last century.

Then, achieving success, the Chinese got confident to the point of arrogance and began challenging the American-led system. Those challenges have demonstrated that the assumptions underpinning American policy—that China would agree to defend the post-Cold War world after becoming its biggest beneficiary—could not have been more wrong.

Today, America’s Taiwan policy is unsustainable. That policy, incredibly, undermines a friendly free society to help an authoritarian state that is at the same time attacking American values.

That policy also works against Washington’s efforts to maintain stability in East Asia. Taiwan is the “cork in the bottle,” the land mass in the First Island Chain at the intersection of the South China and East China Seas. The “unsinkable aircraft carrier” prevents the Chinese navy and air force from reaching the Western Pacific and thereby helps contain Beijing’s dangerous expansionism.

But Washington, inexplicably over the course of decades, has sought to weaken Taiwan.

Many—and not just American Firsters—wonder what’s the point of helping Beijing, an adversary, by forcing a friend, Taiwan, into its arms. Trump, with 10 minutes on the phone Friday, looks like he began correcting America’s biggest foreign policy mistake.