The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States brought unexpected attention to Taiwan. One of Trump’s first post-election acts was to exchange telephone courtesies with President Tsai Ing-wen, calling her “President of Taiwan” on Twitter. Since Tsai, of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected in 2016, this was a conversation between two relatively new national leaders. Media pundits immediately accused Trump of breaking with decades of foreign policy. China has since expressed concern about this perceived threat to their core interests. As former premier Yu Shyi-kun headed from Taiwan to Washington this week with an 11-member delegation, China’s Foreign Ministry warned that such direct contacts would “disturb or undermine Sino–US relations.”
Exciting political changes are happening in Taiwan, where I spent December 2016. On one Saturday afternoon in Taipei, I joined a human rights concert in front of the presidential office, where some 250,000 people showed up to support proposed legislation on same-sex marriage. As a scholar of indigenous rights, I was touched to see young indigenous people take a stand in ceremonial regalia to support LGBT rights. The following day, I also attended a meeting of the miniscule First Nations Party of Taiwan, a group of indigenous activists who want a greater voice in national and local government. Since the party’s name was inspired by Canada, I was invited to congratulate them on four years of existence and the election of a new chairperson. Indigenous and LGBT activists alike hope to make progress with Tsai, a 60-year-old woman with a PhD from the London School of Economics. Tsai has already made a public apology to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples for 400 years of colonization. Taiwan may also become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.
Obviously, Taiwan follows its own political dynamics. Taiwan is not, and never has been, governed by the People’s Republic of China. If Taiwan is part of “One China,” it is only because the state of Taiwan is called the “Republic of China” (ROC) and its legitimacy rooted in a 1947 constitution originally intended for all of China. For many Taiwanese, however, the ROC was an external imposition, created in China in 1911 when Taiwan was part of Japan. The ROC took stewardship of Taiwan at the request of Allied occupying forces in 1945, without seeking the consent of the Taiwanese people. A government perceived by many Taiwanese as an occupying force subsequently represented all of China from Taipei at the United Nations until 1971 and in diplomatic relations with the United States until 1978. The political fiction that the ROC represented “One China” ultimately proved unsustainable.
In 1970, Canada was one of the first Western countries to switch recognition from the ROC to the PRC. In spite of strong negotiations, China failed to get Canada to accept its claims over Taiwan. Hon. Mitchell Sharp, Secretary of State for External Affairs, explained in the House of Commons on October 13, 1970, “the Canadian government does not consider it appropriate either to endorse or to challenge the Chinese Government’s position on the status of Taiwan.” This ambiguous position on Taiwan, amenable as it may be to Canada–China relations, is only possible on the condition that China refrains from belligerence against Taiwan. The United States maintains a closer relationship with Taiwan through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which includes provisions to supply arms and to assist Taiwan against any force or coercion that would jeopardize the security or socioeconomic system of the people of Taiwan.
Trump’s telephone call was not an isolated incident. On December 23, President Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, calling for high-level military exchanges between the US and Taiwan. The incoming Republican administration opposes unilateral steps by either side to alter the status quo, encourages a peaceful solution agreeable to the people of Taiwan, and bases US–Taiwan relations on the Taiwan Relations Act and the six assurances made to Taiwan by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Since the sixth assurance is that the US will not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, Trump’s actions are consistent with longstanding US policy. The biggest change is that the six assurances were made to Chiang Ching-kuo, an unelected authoritarian ruler. Taiwan has since evolved into a full-fledged democracy.
For the moment, Tsai seems more aware than Trump of the limitations of presidential power. She has continually asked for a continuation of cross-straits talks and, in a letter to the Vatican, pleaded for a “new era” of peace. Beijing would like her to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus” of “one China, different interpretations.” Although restrained by domestic political calculations, Tsai has effectively upheld that consensus by not moving toward constitutional revisions that would foreclose the possibility of unification forever. In fact, there is little support in Taiwan for such radical change. In an era of indigenous rights, moreover, the indigenous peoples whose traditional territories cover half of Taiwan can legitimately claim a right to free, prior, informed consent regarding any change in political status that would affect them. Considering the strong disapproval that indigenous people have shown to the DPP in elections, their consent to formal independence is not guaranteed. Finally, Tsai’s party is not the only political force on Taiwan. The Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, which enjoys greater trust with Beijing, may very well return to power in future elections. China can simply wait.
US–China relations may see turbulence in the beginning of Trump’s presidency, but are likely to attain eventual equilibrium. For the moment, leaders in Beijing and Taipei fear Trump may use their interests as negotiating chips. For China, the “One China” principle is non-negotiable. For the US, which must demonstrate its reliability to allies such as Japan, the Taiwan Relations Act is equally non-negotiable. Most importantly, the 23.5 million people of Taiwan will ultimately determine their own fate. Recognition of their rights, by Beijing as well as Washington, is the only guarantee of peace and stability in the region.