When US President-elect Donald Trump took a phone call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen last Friday, he signaled a potential shift in the geopolitical relationship between the US, China and Taiwan.
The two leaders talked for about 10 minutes, extolling the “the close economic, political and security ties” between the two sides.
According to Trump’s transition team, Trump and Tsai congratulated each other on their respective victories.
Beijing reacted by calling it a “shenanigan” on the part of Taipei and avoided directly commenting on the United States.
Some observers dismissed the implications of the conversation while others saw a coming “massive change” in Asian geopolitics, especially in cross-strait relations.
President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia via the Trans-Pacific Partnership is on hold and Trump has signalled his intention to walk away from the deal.
But the US still wants to continue to play a key role in Asia with its long-term allies such as South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Observers close to the Trump camp say the US is committed to shackling North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and countering China’s influence in the region, notably over the South China Sea issue.
Trump’s talk with Tsai in effect upheld such Asian alliances and sent a warning to Beijing how Trump will deal with the region’s affairs.
After Beijing formally lodged a diplomatic protest, Trump hit back by telling China to mind its own business.
From Taiwan’s perspective Tsai’s decision to initiate the call to Trump was a smart move.
It was the first direct high-level contact between the US and Taiwan since Washington switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979, resulting in Taiwan’s isolation.
Since then, Taiwan has been under a virtual blockade led by Beijing, banned from international meetings and conferences and more importantly cut off from the trade and investment mainstream.
The US supplies Taiwan with arms but their official relationship is limited to cultural exchanges.
Since Tsai assumed office in May, Beijing has been ramping up its rhetoric regarding the so-called “1992 consensus” which recognizes a single China.
The two sides have left the matter to their own interpretation, with each claiming it’s the real China.
Beijing’s growing influence in the region has complicated the challenges Taiwan faces in its outreach to Southeast Asia through its new South-Forward Policy.
If Trump and Tsai can maintain their relationship in the future, it might put pressure on Beijing to drop its “One China” stance and acknowledge Taiwan’s existence in the global community.
In the past 30 years, the rise of China as a global power has been an existential threat to Taiwan.
Beijing has used its influence to persuade friendly countries to isolate Taiwan in exchange for massive investment.
Under the “One China” principle, these countries have to seek Beijing’s approval before they sign any trade deals with Taiwan. This in turn has distorted the growth of the island.
Tsai’s “courtesy call” to Trump and the manner it was received by the incoming US president just showed that Taiwan need not suffer any more diplomatic isolation.
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