Like many Americans who stand for progressive ideals, few young Taiwanese see someone like Donald Trump as a decent leader. However, the anxious reaction of the American media and foreign policy establishment to the Dec. 2 phone call between Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and President-elect Trump is also at odds with American values of human rights, freedom and democracy.
Sharing these values, we are puzzled why many commentators have treated Trump’s move as an “affront” to authoritarian China rather than consider the possibility of normalizing relations with a democratic nation of 23 million people, many of whom share deep affinities with the United States. When it comes to human rights in Tibet, freedom of speech in Hong Kong or maintaining strong relations with Japan or the Philippines, U.S. pundits rarely skirt controversy for fear of “provoking” China. Why should the rhetoric change when it comes to Taiwan — a vibrant young democracy led by a female head of state which boasts universal health care and is poised to become the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage?
Taiwan’s current diplomatic isolation is a legacy of the Cold War. When the Carter administration cut official ties with Taiwan in 1979, the island was still under the rule of an exiled authoritarian regime which claimed itself as the legitimate representative of all of China. Taiwan’s uneven support from American conservatives, who saw Taiwan as a front line against communist China, is partly a result of this history. However, times have changed. Taiwan has democratized and its people are articulating new aspirations which deserve acknowledgment from Americans across the political spectrum.
Earlier this year, Taiwan underwent another peaceful transition of power, and for the first time a pro-Taiwan coalition took both the presidency and legislature. This development was partly driven by the 2014 Sunflower Movement, which we participated in. A 24-day-long occupation of the legislature and a rally of 500,000 people that drew inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement, this was a protest against the collusion of business and political elites who threatened to sacrifice Taiwan’s sovereignty to enrich the 1 percent. This movement, the elections that followed and national opinion polls together demonstrate a new consensus: Taiwan does not claim to represent China, nor is it trying to become a part of China. Rather, we seek increased international space, recognition and dignity.
While Taiwan has emerged from decades of authoritarian rule, due to both implicit U.S. practice and explicit Chinese interference, it is still unable to participate in organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Despite having the world’s 21st-largest GDP and a larger population than that of Australia, our flourishing multicultural society is internationally silenced and played as a pawn of superpower politics.
It is clear that a single phone call from the U.S. president-elect will not change Taiwan’s diplomatic status. However, the U.S. media response to Trump’s call has thrown Taiwan’s plight into stark relief. Some critics charged Trump with cynically pursuing profits for his hotel empire, which may be attempting to expand into Taiwan. But a new hotel is, as Trump himself might say, “peanuts” compared with Taiwan’s weapons trade with the United States. Trump’s tweets, which implied that Taiwan’s past purchases of billions of dollars of U.S. weapons entitled it to a phone call with the president-elect, are no less troubling than these hotel business rumors.
If Trump’s chat with President Tsai turns out to be nothing more than a business call, it won’t be a call that many people will get behind. However, it is the very abnormality of American policy that allows such unsubstantiated rumors to circulate and compromise the possibility of transparency or public oversight.
A simple phone call with the elected leader of Taiwan has not brought death or destruction. Instead, it has provided an opening, however fraught and imperfect, for a much-needed reconsideration of an unhealthy and anachronistic policy. Dismissing Taiwan’s democracy is not only an affront to Taiwan but to democracy everywhere. Americans — liberal, conservative and otherwise — would do well to stop using Taiwan as a tool to score political points at home or against China, and instead examine their commitments to human rights, freedom and democracy.