One Year after the Trump-Tsai Phone Call

One Year after the Trump-Tsai Phone Call

One Year after the Trump-Tsai Phone Call

In the annals of US-Taiwan relations, December 2 came and went this year with little pomp and circumstance. The date will forever mark, however, the anniversary of the first phone call between President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen. Indeed, just a little before a month after Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, the president-elect accepted a congratulatory phone call from the democratically-elected leader of Taiwan. After the convention-breaking phone call became public, many commentators lamented the undoing of decades of careful diplomacy and US policy towards cross-Strait relations, and expected the worst.

One year after the phone call, it remains to be seen what substantive aspects of US policy towards Taiwan—which is based on the Taiwan Relations Act, Six Assurances, Three Communiqués, and the US “One-China” policy—have, as pundits were predicting, changed. In this special issue of the Global Taiwan Brief, we invited four experts to assess the continuities and changes in US-Taiwan relations in terms of defense cooperation, international space, the role of Congress, and Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan, one year after the phone call. The articles cover what has happened, could happen, and perhaps, most importantly, should happen to enhance US-Taiwan relations.

In spite of earlier concerns that Taiwan would be used as a “bargaining chip,” due to the new president’s transactional nature, there are several aspects of what has actually happened in the past year worth highlighting:

Defense Cooperation

In matters related to defense, at Asia’s premier international security dialogue, the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in June, the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, issued an unprecedented statement affirming that: “The Department of Defense remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide it with necessary defensive articles, which is consistent with the US’ obligation as set out in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).” That same month, the Trump administration notified Congress of the authorization of US$ 1.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.

International Space

With respect to Taiwan’s international space, Taipei and Washington have been working closely together to enhance the former’s engagement with the international community by leveraging the island’s capabilities in functional areas of expertise to assist third-party countries across the world. The mechanism—known as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF)—has held 10 workshops since 2011 in areas including education, e-commerce, energy, environmental protection, humanitarian assistance, public health and women’s empowerment. According to one press report, more than 200 representatives from over 30 countries have attended these workshops. Three workshops were held in 2017 alone. Since Trump’s inauguration in January, the two sides have held workshops in April, November, and December on issues ranging from public health and fighting infectious diseases, promoting women’s entrepreneurship in technology,  and bridging the digital divide, respectively.

On her international state visits across the world, it is customary for the Taiwan president to make transit stops in the United States. In the past year, Tsai has made transit stops in Houston, San Francisco, Miami, and Los Angeles; under the Trump administration, she made two transit stops in Hawaii and Guam that GTI Adviser Shirley Kan observed have become more “visit-like” over time.

Trade and Economic Cooperation

In June, Taiwan led the second largest international delegation to participate in the fourth SelectUSA Investment Summit organized by the Department of Commerce. Taiwan’s delegation—its largest ever, with 140 delegates from 84 companies—was second only to the Chinese delegation, with 155 members, and ahead of Japan’s 121 delegates. As the United States’ 10th largest goods-trading partner with $65.4 billion in total goods traded during 2016, Taiwan’s trade surplus with the United States was valued at $13.27 billion in 2016. At the same time, the United States enjoyed a surplus in trade in services of $4.2 billion. Taiwan’s percentage share of the total US trade deficit accounted for 1.81 percent—by comparison, China commands the lion’s share of the US trade deficit at 47.24 percent. At the summit, Tsai’s representative, Ho Mei-yueh (何美玥), announced that new investments from Taiwan into the United States could possibly top $34 billion.

Despite the United States withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the political stars in Taipei and Washington seemed more aligned than ever before to upgrade US-Taiwan trade relations. USTR representative Robert Lighthizer signaled this during his nomination hearing, where he unequivocally stated, “I intend to develop a trade and investment policy that promotes a stronger bilateral relationship with Taiwan.” Ambassador Lighthizer also noted that the United States will “examine the prospect of additional negotiations with Taiwan.” He added, “Recognizing that foreign investment from Taiwan and elsewhere can create more jobs in the United States and increase U.S. economic growth and competitiveness, I intend to develop a trade and investment policy that promotes foreign investment into the United States that advances these objectives.” Yet, scheduling for the 11th Taiwan Investment and Framework Agree (TIFA) talks have stalled, ostensibly due to an absence of a counterpart at USTR, which is usually performed at the deputy trade representative level. Established in 1994, TIFA is the primary bilateral mechanism for trade dialogue between Taiwan and the United States. The last TIFA meeting was held in October 2016.


In part because of some of these reassuring signals, President Tsai has been able to remain steady in her commitment to maintaining the “status quo” in relations with the PRC. The recent saber-rattling comments made by a Chinese diplomat in Washington, DC, Li Kexin (李克新), a minister in the PRC Embassy in DC, who threatened that a US naval vessel port call to Taiwan—a feasibility study of which was called for in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018—will trigger the Anti-Secession Law and the PLA will thus use military force to unify Taiwan, stands in stark contrast to Tsai’s measured and restrained style.

Therefore, it should perhaps be no surprise that while grudgingly agreeing to the 1982 Communiqué, President Reagan—as the late Ambassador Harvey Feldman noted—“was disturbed by its possible effect on Taiwan and put little trust in Chinese promises to adhere to a peaceful solution.” Indeed, as guidance for policy in future administrations, he placed a secret memorandum in the National Security Council files that read:

The U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy. In addition, it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.[1]

With the latest threat of invasion made by a Chinese diplomat on US soil, Beijing has shown time after time that its stated commitment to a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait relations is unreliable. Threatening the invasion of Taiwan for an act entirely consistent with US policy is also a disproportionate response intended to coerce Taiwan and dictate US policy. To be sure, the past year has been fraught with uncertainties, but US-Taiwan relations have seen steady tangible improvements under the Trump administration. As Beijing appears to be hardening its stance against Taiwan, there is both the need and urgency to enhance not only the quantitative but also the qualitative aspects of Taiwan’s security.

The main point: One year after the phone call, US-Taiwan relations have seen steady tangible improvements. The Chinese diplomat’s saber-rattling calls into doubt Beijing’s commitment to a peaceful solution, there is a need to focus on not only the quantitative but also the qualitative aspects of Taiwan’s security.

[1] For full text of the communiqué, see Shirley A. Kan, “China/Taiwan: Evolution of the ‘One China’ Policy-Key Statements from Washington, Beijing and Taipei,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, September 7, 2006, p. 41.