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Time for a Trump-Tsai Conversation: The Two Presidents Have Much to Discuss

◎ Given significant developments across the Taiwan Strait over the ensuing two years, it is time for a more substantive conversation between the two democratic presidents.


By Joseph Bosco

President Donald Trump, averse to bureaucratic protocol, prefers to deal directly with foreign leaders when he believes vital U.S. national interests are at stake.He has met with Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — all dictators whose regimes are avowed adversaries of the United States.

Yet, none of those one-on-one meetings caused as much angst and controversy as the president-elect’s brief telephone conversation in 2016 with Tsai Ing-wen, the democratically-elected president of Taiwan, a de facto American ally in the geostrategic Indo-Pacific.

After Beijing and the U.S. foreign policy establishment accused him of violating the One China policy, Trump said he could speak with anyone he chooses and didn’t think that policy was sacrosanct or in America’s interests. But he softened his defiance by saying he would notify Xi of any future contacts with Taiwan’s president.

Given significant developments across the Taiwan Strait over the ensuing two years, it is time for a more substantive conversation between the two democratic presidents.

Like Trump’s questioning of conventional wisdom on the U.S.-China relationship, Tsai, also elected in 2016, refused to accept Beijing’s formulation that says Taiwan is part of China. The Xi regime has been working to undermine her government ever since.

During Taiwan’s elections in 2018, China conducted extensive influence operations that, along with several domestic issues, led to a major electoral defeat for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party. Emboldened by its success, Beijing has broadened and deepened its interference in Taiwan’s democratic institutions, using proven techniques that it also applies to its meddling in America’s democracy.

China has stepped up its diplomatic and military pressures on the island. Through intimidation and bribery, it has forced four small developing countries to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Beijing has increased its anti-Taiwan military operations dramatically, deploying ships and planes around the island. Xi has escalated his hostile rhetoric against the Tsai government with his New Year’s greeting: accept Chinese Communist Party rule or be attacked.

All these war-by-other-means tactics have alarmed Taipei and Washington. Taiwan has requested modern fighter aircraft and appealed to the international community to support Taiwan as a front-line state in the global struggle against spreading authoritarianism. The world ignored the fate of Czechoslovakia before the Nazi onslaught that brought on World War II. Deterrence lesson learned, the West stood with West Berlin and the Cold War did not erupt into World War III.

On the U.S. side, the Trump administration published its National Defense Strategy (NDS) identifying China and Russia as “revisionist powers” seeking to upend the world order. The NDS frequently refers to Taiwan’s role as a target of, and bulwark against, Chinese expansionism.

The administration has taken a series of actions to demonstrate its commitment to cross-Strait stability, approving long-delayed arms sales and sending more U.S. Navy warships through the Taiwan Strait in a year than all the transits of the past several administrations combined. With economic security increasingly essential to national security, Taipei and Washington need to conduct serious trade cooperation.

Recognizing that Taiwan shares American values and strategic interests, the U.S. Congress passed, and the president signed, the Taiwan Travel Actto encourage more frequent and higher-ranking reciprocal visits by Taiwanese and U.S. government officials.

To serve that end at the highest possible level, a group of U.S. senators urged the speaker of the House of Representatives to invite Taiwan’s president to address a joint meeting of Congress.  It would be in the tradition of Winston Churchill’s speech to Congress in World War II, Vaclav Havel’s during the Cold War, and Nelson Mandela’s in his struggle against apartheid. Should the address be arranged, a White House visit would be a natural accompaniment.

In the area of human rights, Taiwan and the United States clearly are working in parallel. The U.S. State Department recently established an International Religious Freedom Fund to address, among other causes, the culturally genocidal treatment of the Uighurs in China’s concentration camps. As Taiwan always does during times of great human suffering and need — whether caused by natural disasters or evil human behavior — Taipei immediately stepped up, contributing $1 million to the fund. Last week, Taiwan hosted a regional conference on religious freedom at which Tsai pledged her country’s commitment to the cause. It remains to be seen whether the level of evil perpetrated in China’s “reeducation” camps for Uighurs sinks to the depravity of Nazi concentration camps or today’s North Korean detention camps, but it’s shameful enough to disqualify Communist China as a normal, modern state.

Trump has tended to treat Xi, Putin and Kim as fellow human beings with whom he can have normal relations, even as his administration increasingly treats their regimes as far outside international norms. It is time for democratic Taiwan to be treated as the normal country it is — one of the top dozen or so world economies, larger in population than 142 of 194 countries, and ranked by Freedom House as one of the globe’s freest (with China as one of the least-free).

Government-to-government communications are critical for the cause of stability in the East Asia region of the Indo-Pacific. In addition to Xi and Kim, Trump has met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. Almost all have met with each other. No one has met with Tsai; Trump is the only one even to talk with her on the phone. Now he needs to be the first to meet with her.

As for Trump’s commitment to notify Xi before talking with Taiwan’s president again, he can certainly inform him — just this once —  of what he is doing, and then do it. Xi hardly can walk away from trade talks and bring on the higher tariffs Trump has held in abeyance. If Beijing threatens to undermine North Korea sanctions even more than it already is, secondary sanctions on China are already overdue. The United States has the cards to ensure stability in East Asia. It should play them.

First published in The Hill.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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