The Trump – Taiwan Call and America’s Diplomatic Protocol

The phone call between president-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen unleashed much handwringing from America’s foreign policy establishment and journalists. While anti-Trump figures seized on the incident as apocalyptic, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, downplayed the significance of the phone call as a “small trick” on the part of the Taiwanese, according to Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi

China later lodged a formal complaint, amounting to a statement reiterating that the U.S. should respect a “one-China policy.” The deft handling of the Chinese to a slight of American diplomatic protocol didn’t stop U.S. commentators from overanalyzing the Sino-U.S. relationship and determining it a significant cause of long-term damage. Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House national security council, told the Financial Times “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” – quite exaggeratory given China’s formal response.

It is not wise to disregard diplomatic protocol lightly, but the phone call does offer up an opportunity to review America’s diplomatic protocol. The U.S. now has an opening to examine whether it is in our Asia-Pacific interests to ignore Taiwan and the issues between them and China. As a Pacific power, we should re-engage with both sides.

We have in place arms agreements with the island Republic amounting to billions of dollars of rather advanced equipment. We are adamant that China and Taiwan should reach political, not military solutions to their disputes and we back that up in quite clear statements and actions. It seems odd then that we refuse to speak with the President of Taiwan while giving her nation advanced military equipment.

Perhaps diplomatic protocol is not keeping up with events on the ground. That is not a surprise, given that we have not examined it since 1979 when the policy was put in place under Jimmy Carter as part of our normalization with the People’s Republic.

former u.s. secretary of state henry kissinger in beihing meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Beijing Credit: Rex

We should regularly speak to Taiwan, especially concerning their relationship with China. We should also speak with China about how best the U.S. can engage in normalizing Chinese-Taiwanese relations. That it is a valued priority of the U.S. and we can seek guidance from both sides on how best to handle it with respect to both of their concerns.

Diplomatic protocol, while important, can be reviewed. Taiwan is a high-tech advanced economy that is integrated into our Asia-Pacific framework. That’s whether we choose to pick up the phone when they call or not.

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