In December 2016, Taiwan-watchers were surprised to learn that Taiwan’s leader, President Tsai Ing-wen, had spoken with President-elect Donald Trump over the phone, a congratulatory call initiated by President Tsai. Pundits marveled at the novelty of something that had certainly not taken place for more than 30 years since the decision by President Carter to break diplomatic relations with the island republic and shift the American embassy and diplomatic relations over to Beijing.
When the media jumped on the story of the phone call, Mr. Trump somewhat defensively indicated that it was no big deal. He characterized the exchange as normal; when an international figure calls to congratulate, you take the call. In many respects, that explanation should have sufficed, butut for cognoscenti of cross-Strait matters, this was far from normal practice. Beijing expressed its displeasure, but in a somewhat muted form since it too was trying to adjust to the surprising victory of Mr. Trump in the US elections. Let us remember that pundits and polls had all been predicting that the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was the favorite to win.
Mr. Trump was also a major variant from the normal presidential candidate, having never previously served in government at any level. Nor did he appear to have much experience in dealing with international politics. Instead, he had made his fortune building on his father’s construction business, a path paved by early wealth and connections within the New York business community.
With all this in mind, Chinese President Xi Jinping quickly reached out to the newly elected American president and managed to schedule the first meeting at President Trump’s Florida hotel early this Spring—but not before he requested that President Trump “honor” the US “One-China” policy. During this inaugural tête-à-tête, Xi carefully played to the new American leader’s fragile ego. This set in motion the “state-plus” visit to Beijing that President Trump completed in October 2017.
The White House has also been slower than expected in staffing the new administration with China expertise. Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad took up his duties as US Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in July. Then Governor Branstad hosted a visit by Xi Jinping in Iowa back in 1985, when the young Chinese official made his first trip to the US as a mid-level agricultural official. The two renewed their acquaintance when then Vice President Xi returned to the US in 2012.
Like his boss in the White House, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had never served in government before taking up his current responsibilities, but has been active in Asian affairs since taking office early this year. There is still no appointed Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Department of State. Experienced Foreign Service Officer (FSO) and China hand Susan Thornton has been Acting Assistant Secretary in the meantime, but lacks the clout of previous political appointees to the position.
The recent nomination of Randall Schriver to the Department of Defense (DoD) Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs would place an experienced Asia hand in this key position. Mr. Schriver knows Taiwan well, and could help focus attention to the island’s defense requirements, once confirmed.
President Tsai has now been in office for a year and a half. Her solid victory in last year’s presidential balloting marked a decisive shift in Taiwan politics previously dominated by the stronger grassroots KMT organization and its plentiful financial resources. Unlike her DPP predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, Tsai garnered a solid majority of the votes cast. Perhaps more importantly, she was also rewarded with the first majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY) for her party in Taiwan’s history.
While in office, President Chen struggled to enact his program goals, constantly running up against the unwillingness of the KMT-dominated LY to cooperate with him during his eight years in office. President Tsai thus has significantly greater legislative power than Chen, something that used to be a monopoly held by former KMT Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Ma Ying-jeou.
On the other hand, most pundits predicted rocky cross-Strait relations following President Tsai’s electoral victory. After all, this was coming after eight years of KMT rule under President Ma, whose election was welcomed in Beijing. Perhaps the highlight of Mr. Ma’s presidency, at least in cross-Strait relations, was the November 2015 Singapore meeting between him and PRC President Xi Jinping.
Though not characterized as a formal event and taking place at a neutral site, it was still a significant diplomatic victory for Ma. Senior Taiwan and Chinese political figures had crossed paths at previous international gatherings, such as Asia Development Bank and Asia Pacific Economic Conference, but China and Taiwan’s heads of state had not formally talked with one another since the end of the Chinese Civil War.
After last year’s presidential elections, China quickly made it clear that President Tsai was on probation, with Beijing watching her actions and judging her statements. Cross-Strait economic ties did not dramatically decline, though the number of Chinese tourists visiting the island dropped significantly. One must presume this reflected a new, more hostile attitude toward such links on the part of Beijing. When I visited Taiwan this past summer, friends there told me it had become easier to visit the Palace Museum and other popular tourist sites now that the swarms of mainlanders had decreased. But hotels and airlines undoubtedly took a hit, as presumably was the goal of leaders in Beijing.
One dog that has not barked thus far—at least to the extent many anticipated—has been a sharp drop in formal diplomatic ties between Taiwan and the 20 countries (including the Vatican) that still recognize the island’s sovereignty. True, Panama shifted its embassy from Taipei to Beijing in June 2017. Presumably China could make attractive offers to other diplomatic partners of Taipei if it decided to make this a top priority.
To the extent that cross-Strait competition centers on a struggle over hearts and minds, it may be that Beijing recognizes this would be unpopular with the people of Taiwan. China may also not want the economic burden of picking up on relationships that have benefited materially from formal ties to Taiwan.
In the case of the Vatican, there continues to be concerns on the part of Beijing’s leaders over the influence that institution might hold on the millions of practicing Catholics in China. There is also the longstanding insistence by the Vatican that only the Pope can select bishops, something that the government-controlled process in China currently prevents. Yet it is clear that Rome would like access to all of the practicing Catholics in the PRC. That said, I would not be surprised if one day we read that an arrangement has been reached to permit the Holy See to move its diplomatic mission across the Taiwan Strait.
One would like to think the other “diplomatic partners” of Taiwan are not up for sale, though I am not convinced of that. That said, there is a more important point that I have made in the past to my friends in Taiwan: The truly critical—albeit informal—relationships Taiwan enjoys with countries like the United States, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and other major powers, including the EU, are much more important to the island’s livelihood and survival than the rather modest countries that retain formal diplomatic relations there.
The question arises: is China staying its hand on the question of these diplomatic partners, using the issue as a Sword of Damocles over Taiwan’s future behavior? It is true that President Tsai has been cautious on the hot button issue of a formal declaration of independence, despite a segment of the DPP that favors formalizing the reality that Taiwan already enjoys de facto separation from the mainland and its government. This is a contentious issue within some DPP circles, but I believe for the most part that Taiwan’s leader and her party understand the importance of not rocking the boat on the subject.
President Xi Jinping obtained a strong endorsement for his continued leadership at the recently concluded Party Congress in Beijing. Some believe he has aspirations to stay in office beyond the second five-year term granted to him this fall. The fact that no obvious successor has arisen within the party ranks breaks a tradition dating back to the 1980’s, so Mr. Xi is perhaps at the height of his power now. He has made allusions to resolving the Taiwan issue, but thus far has set no deadline. That said, Mr. Xi has recently suggested that this matter must be resolved before the 100th anniversary of the PRC in 2049.
President Trump seemed besotted by the pageantry of Xi Jinping’s “State-plus” hospitality during his recent visit to Beijing. But as far as the public record shows, there was no real discussion of Taiwan or cross-Strait relations during the summit. There could of course have been unreported exchanges, but it seems notable that Mr. Xi did not seek to place some reference to this “core interest” on the record. Referring back to the Tsai-Trump phone exchange a year ago, other than an acknowledgement earlier this year by Mr. Trump to the “One-China” principle—a nod to Beijing— there seems to have been no real follow-up by the American leader to President Tsai’s phone conversation last November.
To sum things up, Taipei and to a lesser degree Beijing have shown prudence and moderation over the past 18 months concerning the freighted issue of cross-Strait relations. President Tsai has not embraced Beijing’s favored concept of the so-called “1992 consensus” (vague as this is) and President Xi has maintained a relatively low-key approach to cross-Strait relations as he has continued to solidify his power. The PRC leader has plenty of other issues to focus on back home. Taiwan’s economy has no doubt suffered from the downturn in tourism and commercial dealings with the mainland, but not in any dramatic fashion.
Barring an unexpected shift in the approach of the two sides, I do not expect things to dramatically deteriorate–or improve–anytime soon. President Tsai has plenty of other matters to focus on, including her drooping poll numbers and the sluggish economy at home. Support for Taipei from Washington, Tokyo, and other close friends will continue. Those who aspire toward a more clear-cut resolution of the cross-Strait relationship will have to curb their enthusiasm. Amorphous as it may seem to outsiders, the fragile relationship between Taiwan and the PRC has survived now for nearly seven decades. That in and of itself should give friends of the island cause for quiet optimism.
The main point: Following his acceptance of President Tsai’s congratulatory phone call in December, 2016, President Trump has reverted to America’s traditionally cautious approach toward cross-Strait relations. President Tsai has resisted pressure from Beijing to embrace the amorphous “1992 consensus.” While it is possible that President Xi could target some of Taiwan’s remaining 20 diplomatic partners, this would only further alienate the people of Taiwan and their government from the PRC.
 In fact Clinton did win the popular vote—by a considerable margin—but fell short of victory when the electoral votes were tallied up. This involved some explanation to international observers of the US constitutional process, which awards victory not to the candidate with the most votes, but the to the person who achieves a majority of the electoral college votes.