The View from Taichung: The Real Danger of 'The Call'

Accessing the dangerous pitfalls of the phone call between Trump and Tsai that shook the world

Trenches protecting a Japanese fire base in the mountains east of Jhuolan, a reminder of how Taiwan's destiny has been shaped by outside intervention.

The Trump-Tsai phone call blew across US-China geopolitics and the global media this week, temporarily putting Taiwan on the map again. The impulsive, vitriolic, and often sadly uninformed media broadsides it sparked focused on allegations of heightened tensions in the US-China-Taiwan relationship and Trump's incompetence, driven in no small part by the desire of many in the media to score off Trump, whom they detest. A number of sharp observers opined that "The Call" would have looked better if Trump had not followed it up with a barrage of seemingly lunatic tweets.

Ironically Taiwan, so seldom appearing on the global stage, seemed almost lost in all the fuss. Few reporters bothered to source quotes from anyone based on The Beautiful Island. Whether by accident or design, the US President-elect 's Twitter trolling kept all eyes on him and not on President Tsai of Taiwan, who sailed unscathed through the slings and arrows, maintaining her usual composed silence.

In reality, there was little chance that The Call by itself would have any great effect. It was a symbolic act, and China responded with symbolism: it summoned the ambassador. That is a normal event in the US-China relationship, happening each of the last two years. China frequently makes loud noises which like fireworks excite everyone but quickly disappear, but concrete punishments remain rare. In the China-Taiwan relationship this is complicated by China's startling lack of a coherent Taiwan policy, something observers have noted for at least a decade now. China needs links to Taiwan if it is ever going to annex it, and concrete punishments sever those links, reducing its long-term leverage.

Moreover, actions that punish Taiwan have costs for China. This leaves Beijing with less room than is commonly thought to affect Taiwan. For example, the cut in Chinese group tourists, by far the least remunerative and most widely despised visitors in Taiwan, was warmly welcomed on the island and had little effect on the economy or even on the industry it was ostensibly aimed at.

Occupancy rates are stable overall and through September of 2016 the Taiwan hotel industry added more rooms and establishments as more operators entered the field than for the same period in 2015. In the end, Beijing's decision to slash tour groups simply harmed a small group of supporters in Taiwan who had invested in its political subsidy. The cut does, however, provide diverting political theatre for the media.

A second danger of The Call was identified by veteran China reporter John Pomfret in an excellent piece in the Washington Post. "Together," he observed, "Trump's shenanigans and the hyperventilation by the media could end up adding more unwarranted pressure on democratic Taiwan and could contribute to the continued narrowing of its international space." 

Indeed. The media explosion signaled to Beijing that this was an event which, if it chose, it could inflict punishment on the US or Taiwan and everyone in the US would scream "See!?" instead of criticizing Beijing. Fortunately Beijing was more restrained than the American media, no great feat. But eventually, if the media educates it enough, it will learn.

One reason that the media reacted so explosively was that the people who typically broker and explain China to the American public and who cultivate connections with the media reacted so explosively. The Call signaled them as well: "You are not in charge here anymore, and we are going to do things our way." 

In the wake of The Call both President Tsai and knowledgeable observers hastened to reassure China watchers that revolutionary change was not in the offing. Longtime Taiwan expert Steve Yates, who served in the Bush Administration White House, said at a press conference on Tuesday in Taipei: "it would not be reasonable to anticipate major changes in US policy at this point." But this could well be read to imply that it is reasonable to expect major change at some point.

The widespread reaction by this class of China watchers heralds the third and largely unmentioned danger: repercussions for Taiwan support in US domestic politics. Taiwan has always received strong bipartisan support. Now there is a danger that the Taiwan issue, like so many other issues from global warming to gun control to education, will fall out across the partisan divide. Taiwan's friends in the US are well-practiced in averting this danger. President Tsai has proven herself to be capable, quiet, and resolute, and appears to be liked and respected in Washington.

But The Call, as Max Fisher of the New York Times described in an explanation of the Taiwan issue, "…does not in itself change policy, but it implies the possibility of a shift." If and when that shift occurs, it may become identified with President Trump's circle of Republican advisers, and with Republicans in general, pulling Taiwan in along with it. Whatever changes are in store, the Tsai Administration and Taiwan's friends everywhere need to work together to ensure that Taiwan continues to have strong supporters on both sides of the aisle.