It all started with a phone call.
Since 1979, the United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, officially agreeing to the so-called “One China” formula in which the only recognized Chinese state is the Communist government in Beijing. This has not stopped a booming trade between Taiwan and America, including billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware for the island country.
Yet, in diplomacy it is frequently appearances – rather than realities – that matter. So while we send vast amounts of war materiel and enjoy significant trade ties, we do not have an official embassy in Taiwan. When our governments communicate it is usually through lower-level diplomats and functionaries. Thus, the relationship is real and deep; all sides agree to play-act for the sake of appearances.
So when Donald Trump spoke to Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, the media and diplomatic talking heads went nuts.
It is true that the move is a major break from tradition and protocol. The diplomatic services of nations love traditions and protocols, so it is little surprise that Trump’s move has upset them. But the mass hysteria that the move has elicited from the news media and social media posters is quite astonishing.
A look at my Facebook feed tells me that we are on the cusp of World War III. This gnashing of teeth and rending of garments only intensified yesterday when Trump decided to double down and tweet some accusations China’s way, including challenges to their interest rate regime, their building artificial islands in the South China Sea, and their unequal import tariff regimes.
Are we really facing an international crisis? Should we be dusting off our family Cold War bunkers?
The reality is that Trump’s moves will no doubt irk the Chinese government. They always bristle when the United States levels any accusations of illegal behavior or impropriety. Yet, they are also rational. President Xi Jinping has as little interest in World War III, or any destabilizing action in his backyard. The notion that a phone call and some tweets will cause him to scramble jets or reach for the nuclear codes is laughable.
Even if most of the American media and intelligentsia thinks Trump is a madman, no one can say the same of the ever calculating and cautious Chinese government. They are clearly angry. Appearances and decorum matter a great deal to political discourse in China, after all. But their reactions will be measured.
It is also worth noting that Trump’s moves represent a relatively low-cost move to put China on the defense. By talking to President Tsai, Trump is demonstrating without any blunt force or direct accusations that the current moves by China to put pressure on Taiwan will not be allowed to continue unanswered. If anything, the call was one of the better ways to address the region and alter American posture without risk of an actual escalation.
So everyone should really calm down. War isn’t about to break out over any of this. All that’s happening is a new president is establishing a more authoritative posture in a region of vital strategic importance.
I don’t like Donald Trump. I am doubtful of his skills as a leader in both domestic and foreign policy. But it is folly to scream that the world is coming to an end every time he does something unexpected. That sort of “sky is falling” rhetoric will only desensitize people to Trump. If you really care, wait for something to actually worry about before getting on the horn.
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