There hasn’t been a phone calls between a U.S. president, or president-elect, and a Taiwanese leader since 1979 — until this week.
On its face the congratulatory phone call made by President Tsai Ing-wen to President-elect Trump may seem like a big deal — and the mainstream media will have you believing this is the end of U.S.-China relations — but will the phone call actually change anything? To understand the significance, or lack thereof, we need to take a brief look at the history between the U.S., Taiwan, and China.
In 1949, shortly after WWII, the Chinese Civil War erupted between the communist party of China and the Chinese Nationalist Party. The civil war eventually shifted in favor of the Communist party and the Nationalists retreated to what is now Taiwan. There was never a formal end to the civil war, and to this day there is an open declaration of war between the nations. China considers itself to be the only legitimate government of China, including the land that is now Taiwan, while the Taiwanese see themselves as an independent nation.
For a short time, after the Chinese Civil War, the U.S. had formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. There was a U.S. embassy in Taiwan and Taiwan had an embassy in Washington D.C. In 1979 the U.S. ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan because of Soviet military threats. The U.S. embassy was moved from Taipei to Beijing and Taiwan closed their embassy here in the U.S. Although formal diplomatic ties diminished in 1979, the U.S. and Taiwanese immediately established an informal diplomatic relationship under the Taiwanese Relations Act (TRA).
Under the TRA Taiwan receives similar benefits as other formally recognized nations. They enjoy Export-Import Bank Financing, Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) guarantees, access to U.S. markets, and normal trade relations. What’s even more interesting is the amount of arms the U.S. has sold Taiwan since 1979 to defend itself.
One would assume, considering the media’s rhetoric, that this simple congratulatory call by President Tsai Ing-wen to President-elect Trump would irritate China to the point of harming U.S.-China relations. This may be reasonable considering there is still an open declaration of war between China and Taiwan and China and the U.S. have arguably the most important relationship between nations globally.
If China cares as much about U.S.-Taiwan communication as the media claims they do, however, why have the billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales between the nations been ignored or overlooked for over 45 years?
The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
So just how much defense and military equipment has the U.S. sold to Taiwan since 1979?
In total: more than $50 billion worth of arms.
This total includes weapons, tanks, hundreds of aircraft, multiple naval ships, missiles, and more. Out of this $50 billion worth of arms sales, more than $14 billion worth of sales occurred under President Obama. Additionally, President G.W. Bush accounted for over $10 billion in sales and President Clinton was responsible for over $17 billion in arms sales to Taiwan. In fact, less than a year ago the Obama administration announced a $1.83 billion deal to sell arms to the Armed Forces of Taiwan.
Whether President-elect Trump took the congratulatory phone call on a whim or if the move was calculated is something we’ll never know for sure. However, we do know that Trump ran a successful campaign partly on the promise to negotiate “new trade deals” with China. He bashed the Chinese treatment of the U.S., our currency, and our markets and vowed to produce change. What will be the change? What will be the “new deals?” What leverage will Trump use to make these deals?
Donald Trump has made his negotiating strategies no secret by publishing The Art of the Deal, and this may just be a move out of his public playbook. Trump claims he always maximizes his options, “never getting to attached to one deal or one approach.” He claims the only way to get the deal he wants is to come from a position of strength. Specifically, he says he “uses [his] leverage” to convince the other side he has something they need.
Could this all play right into his plans to negotiate with China as soon as he’s in office? Stronger and more open U.S.-Taiwan relations is not a path China is hoping to venture down, which may be exactly why Trump is flirting with the concept. If this is just part of Trump’s ploy to build leverage against China, then perhaps the media has underestimated him … again.
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