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Opinion America’s overreaction to Trump’s Taiwan call is dangerous

Jia Lynn Yang explains the back story on relations between the U.S., China, and Taiwan, and the ramifications of Friday's telephone call. (Video: Alice Li, Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

John Pomfret, a former China correspondent for The Post, is author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”

Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has elicited a predictable response from the commentariat: shock and dismay because Trump allegedly upset the apple cart of a bipartisan consensus on how to manage China and its claims on the island of Taiwan. Trump has been accused of undoing 40 years of delicate diplomacy and making a dangerously destabilizing move.

This criticism has elements of truth, but the overblown nature of the reaction to Trump’s call also is unhelpful. Together, 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.

This is a shame because Taiwan has come a long way from its days as the unsinkable aircraft carrier against Maoist-style communism. It’s now a full-fledged democracy, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, the only woman who is not part of a political dynasty to ever be elected as the leader of an Asian nation. Her victory this year marked the third peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other in Taiwan, a sign of the maturity of Taiwan’s political system, its robust civil society and raucously independent media.

In praising Trump’s call with Tsai, Trump supporters have noted that Trump’s use of the term the “president of Taiwan” marked a welcome dose of reality to a relationship that has been hamstrung by diplomatic euphemisms. “If a little courtesy to a democratic friend and a little truth about Taiwan could really threaten peace in the Pacific,” wrote Stephen Yates and Christian Whiton, who served respectively in the White House and at the State Department under George W. Bush, “then we need to reevaluate our defense and come up with something better.” Other Republicans, like Jon Huntsman, the Mandarin-speaking former ambassador to China, said Trump is right to seek stronger relations with Taipei.

But the fact is that U.S. policy on Taiwan has already evolved significantly since the Nixon administration opened America to China in 1972.

While researching my new book on U.S.-China relations, I found that both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter privately promised Chinese officials that the United States would step aside as China united with Taiwan. Nixon sought China’s help to end the war in Vietnam and both he and Carter wanted to use China as part of the global competition against America’s biggest foe — the Soviet Union. Contemplating the abandonment of Taiwan was made easier by the fact that Taiwan’s government — then still run by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek — was an authoritarian state.

Carter’s rush to normalize relations with China concerned Congress. In 1978, influential senators asked the administration to keep Congress apprised of any changes to America’s mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. But the White House ignored the request and established ties with China on Jan. 1, 1979. A month later, a bipartisan congressional coalition pushed back and proposed the Taiwan Relations Act. Spearheaded by Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, the act put China on notice that the United States might respond to an invasion of Taiwan and directed the president to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and technology. As with the current moment, there was a lot of hand-wringing in the media and the White House that challenging China on Taiwan was unwise and that China was going to be angry. In March 1979, the act passed both houses of Congress by a veto-proof margin. Carter had no choice but to sign it into law. China blasted the legislation as “an unwarranted intrusion” into its internal affairs.

As time passed and China failed to live up to American expectations that China’s system would become more like America’s, U.S. presidents also began to distance themselves from the private assurances of Nixon and Carter. In the summer of 1982, President Ronald Reagan wrote a letter to Taiwan’s president Chiang Ching-kuo, which was read to Taiwan’s leader by U.S. diplomat James Lilley. In the letter, Reagan promised among other things that the United States would not let China tell it what weapons it could sell to Taiwan and that the United States would never push Taiwan to negotiate with China. In that light, Trump isn’t the first president or president-elect since 1979 to have communicated directly with a president of Taiwan.

The Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and China’s military rise further pushed successive U.S. administrations ever farther from the idea that Taiwan should be nudged to unify with China. Adding to that was Taiwan’s historic evolution from a right-wing dictatorship to a democracy. When Nixon’s fellow architect of the China opening, Henry Kissinger, warned Taiwan in 2007 that China “will not wait forever” for unification, he had become an outlier on that issue. Indeed, Kissinger and Nixon had long since gone their separate ways on China. In an interview shortly before he died, Nixon mused to the New York Times that perhaps in its support of China over Taiwan, the United States was creating a “Frankenstein.”

Throughout the 1990s, not only were U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan not reduced, they were enhanced. Officials serving at the American Institute in Taiwan, the department’s diplomatic post, no longer needed to leave the State Department to work at AIT. While it stood aside in 1971 as Taiwan was turfed from the United Nations, the United States helped Taiwan gain observer status at the World Health Assembly. In addition, China’s unwillingness or inability to help the United States confront North Korea’s nuclear program might have played a factor in the U.S. turn away from Beijing. Today no senior member of the Democratic or Republican foreign-policy establishments would favor unification between China and Taiwan under the current configuration of the Chinese Communist Party. The Obama administration publicly praised Tsai’s election as an example of real democracy in action.

I worry that Trump’s call and the media reaction could complicate these warming ties by encouraging China to punish Taiwan, which could then touch off a cascading series of moves and counter-moves leading to more tension in Asia and, in the end, more problems for the people of Taiwan, China and the United States. Nobody really wants to replay 1996, when the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft-carrier battle groups near Taiwan to put China on notice that a series of mock invasions and missile tests were out of line. I also worry that the new administration, seeking a breakthrough in North Korea, is reopening the Taiwan issue only to get Beijing’s attention and will drop the Taiwan bargaining chip once China gets the message.

After the phone conversation Friday, the eruption of criticism was deafening. The fear of a Chinese response was palpable. To defend himself, Trump tweeted that Tsai “CALLED ME” and groused that it was “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” But the hyperventilation and Trump’s placing responsibility for the call on Tsai’s shoulders play into China’s hands. On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sounded statesmanlike when he dismissed the phone call as “just a small trick by Taiwan” and said that he believed it would not change U.S. policy toward China.

Emboldened by the American media’s reaction to Trump’s gambit, China’s next step will be to punish Taiwan. Beijing has already greeted Tsai’s election by slashing the number of tourists approved to travel to the island. Last year, 3.4 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan; this year, that number is down 30 percent. More penalties will be in store. I sure hope that after his feel-good call with Tsai, Trump has a plan to help her out.