Much brouhaha has been made over the weekend phone call between President-Elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. On the surface you’d think that calling out for Chinese would be no big deal, but this conversation wasn’t about Moo Goo Gai Pan and by merely having any conversation at all, a lot of mainland Chinese bile has hit the wok.
Taiwanese Presidents have been untouchable by top U.S. leaders for nearly four decades owing to the “One China Policy” created back in the 70s by former President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This policy in a nutshell says that the U.S. and most of the West recognize that China is one integral, indivisible country and that the Communists in Beijing by dint of controlling over 90 percent of it are the legitimate government of this one country.
Conventional thinking is that partition is OK for Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, for Palestinians and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis but not for China. This is a big burr under the posteriors of the Beijing Politburo because any deviation from this position implies the Communist regime perhaps isn’t as legitimate as they’d like the world and their own people to regard it and that the Chinese civil war hasn’t been resolved. It infuriates the Communists that any remnant of non-Communist China exists because that existence means there must be another political point of view and in monolithic mainland China, that’s an anathema because the people of China aren’t meant to have any say as to who their leaders are and how their country is run.
For nearly four decades, the U.S. and the West have been cravenly kowtowing to the Communists by dint of their strategic (and now economic) importance in the world. Nuclear missiles, millions of soldiers and really cheap consumer goods speak louder than the principles of freedom, democracy and human rights.
The Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan are the heirs to the popular revolution more than a century ago to overthrow the millennia-old Chinese monarchy and create a republic. Seeing an opportunity to further international Communism owing to the instability within China as a result of that revolution, the Soviets poured money and materiél into the fledgling Communist guerrilla insurgency led by Mao Zedong. Mao made life miserable for Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists who were concurrently battling breakaway warlords, the Communists and then by the late 1930s, the Japanese who were trying to conquer the country.
During World War II the Soviets instructed Mao to take a break from beating on the Nationalists to fight the Japanese, but after 1945 the civil war resumed in full earnest. From the late 1920s until the Communists conquered the entire mainland in 1949, Mao slaughtered and starved hundreds of thousands of opponents and after 1949 the Communists killed millions more of their own citizens through their Stalin-esque Gulag system, endless purges and forced collectivization.
Chiang’s troops, driven from the mainland, fled to the island of Taiwan along with a couple of million mainlanders and declared that the Republic of China was now situated there and they hoped to use that island as a base to eventually invade the mainland, resume the civil war and overthrow the Communists. For about 30 years the U.S.-backed the Nationalists on Taiwan as the legitimate government of all China. In the 70s former President Nixon “opened up” Communist China as a way to create a strategic wedge between and the Soviet Union and China thereby weakening global Communist forces. In this Nixon succeeded. While switching recognition from the Nationalists to the Communists, the U.S. also ambiguously pledged to ensure that Taiwan wasn’t forcibly integrated into the mainland and could defend itself and maintain its de-facto independence.
Over the last few decades the government in Taiwan has evolved from an essentially pro-West fascist dictatorship led by the Kuomintang (KMT, or Chinese Nationalist Party, founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1912) to a multi-party pluralistic free democracy where there have been peaceful transfers of power between the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Taiwan’s current President is from the DPP. Taiwan today is a free-enterprise economic powerhouse with the rule of law, freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, travel, livelihood, etc.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, the Communists still have an iron grip on any political expression. Basic freedoms are still repressed. The people are made quiescent by a potent mixture of intimidation through force and the injection of state-sponsored capitalism which allows folks to make money and buy creature comforts. Ironically, the Communist Party has transmogrified into a fascist dictatorship themselves which enables them to stay in power. But the people are given no other options. It’s kind of like both Saudi Arabia where silence is also bought with money and ancient Rome where the masses were quelled with bread and circuses.
There are many on Taiwan who would like to put a formal end to the Chinese civil war, give up any claims to the mainland and rejoin the family of nations – essentially get on with their lives and have their own freedom and self-determination on Taiwan for Taiwan and leave the mainland to its own devices. The problem is that the Communists won’t hear of it. It’s an all or nothing, my way or the highway deal with them – no Chinese (except maybe in New York’s Chinatown) can be under their own umbrella – it has the be the Beijing parasol or you’re flat out of luck.
So, back to Mr. Trump and Ms. Tsai. By even implicitly or by slight inference recognizing that Taiwan has a President and that this President might possibly be legitimate, it opens the specter of a brave new world vis-à-vis China that could have geo-strategic and economic implications of a potentially frightening nature.
Should the 23.5 million people of Taiwan have the right to self-determination free from threats of coercion and annihilation? Should the US stand firm for human rights and for what’s right around the world irrespective of existing political orthodoxies? A lot of folks didn’t think the Iron Curtain in Europe could ever be shattered, but it was. What about Asia’s “bamboo curtain?” (China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and North Korea). Donald Trump could certainly make it an interesting ride to say the least if resetting China policy is on his mind.