The View From Asia

The Trump-Tsai phone call and what it could cost

PHOTO: AFP

President-elect Donald Trump's surprise phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen sparked many commentaries in the region. Here are some from China Daily and The China Post, which are members of the Asia News Network.

Provocations will jeopardise Sino-US ties

Editorial
China Daily, China

Close attention will be paid to Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen's transit via the United States when she travels to Guatemala next month, for it will shed light on what direction Sino-US relations will take when Mr Donald Trump enters the White House.

Despite Beijing's opposition, the US insists it is a "longstanding practice" since it has given the nod to such transits by leaders of the island many times before.

But Ms Tsai's transit is taking place soon after she and Mr Trump held a phone conversation, breaking with decades of precedent. No incumbent or incoming US president has spoken by phone with a Taiwan leader since 1979, when Beijing and Washington established diplomatic relations.

 

The incident, if indeed by design as reported, could indicate a major US policy shift that would threaten relations, since they are built on the longstanding acknowledgment by the US of One China, which is the sine qua non for healthy relations.

Although Beijing has shown that it is willing to keep the bigger picture in mind, this attitude should not be mistaken for weakness.

China has to prepare for the worst, even though it will continue to do all it can to maintain a healthy bilateral relationship. What has happened over the past weeks tends to suggest that Sino-US relations are facing uncertainty as never before, as Mr Trump's words are not necessarily more bark than bite.

Taiwan to foot bill for phone call

Editorial
The China Post, Taiwan

President Tsai Ing-wen's late-night call to US President-elect Donald Trump is said to have breached decades of protocol that have governed US-Taiwan relations and kept peace in the Taiwan Strait since at least the 1970s, and it's being viewed as a challenge to the cross-strait "red line".

Ms Tsai's initiative in reaching out to the US President-elect has angered Beijing, despite her efforts to downplay the significance.

The call was derided by mainland China as a "small action", though the action nevertheless propelled Taiwan into the international spotlight, something that Chinese authorities deeply did not wish to see.

Beijing later lodged a complaint against the US over the call.

Catapulting Taiwan into the international limelight works in Ms Tsai's favour as an embattled president struggling to shore up domestic support, but the question is, at what cost?

Ms Tsai is balancing between her "maintaining the status quo" narrative and reaching out to the US, a dicey gamble with a good chance of going south.

Pushing against time-tested diplomatic protocols is a double-edged sword for Taiwan, simply because Beijing is in the position to retaliate by adding pressure on Taiwan and reducing its international presence.

World leaders are seeking ways to work with Mr Trump, hoping that new partnerships may arise and looking to upend the old order with the new normal. Ms Tsai, despite reiterating her promises to maintain the status quo, has repeatedly sought flexibility and opportunities without being constrained or boxed in by Beijing, as her main goal is to advance Taiwan's overseas interests.

In other words, she's seeking as much "wiggle room" as China will allow under the status quo without prompting anger. Whether the Trump-Tsai call and the meanings attached to it could usher in the new normal into the US' Asian policy remains to be seen.

But it's critical for Taiwan and the Tsai administration to not count too much on Mr Trump and his incoming administration, as his unpredictability is most likely to come at a cost to Taiwan.

  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see www.asianews.network.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'The Trump-Tsai phone call and what it could cost'. Print Edition | Subscribe