President-elect Trump's phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen is to diplomacy what Happy Gilmore's slap shot was to the Pro Golf Tour. It defies all convention, is appallingly out of context — and should not even work — but it might just augur a new way of doing things.
That conversation disrupted previous norms, some of which resulted from decades of delicate, often secret, negotiations. Trump's action was supposedly not an accident, although he later petulantly tweeted, 'the President of Taiwan CALLED ME ... ' In the midst of the predictable, confected outrage it is worth considering the event within the context of contemporary US-China relations.
As with all matters Chinese, an historical perspective allows a more nuanced understanding of what went on, and whether or not it really mattered at all.
Taiwan's enduring capacity to pull heartstrings in the US is due largely to the following reason.
The commitment to Taiwan is viscerally linked to the descent of the iron curtain in 1945 and the initiation across the globe, east and west, of cold war hostilities. This mindset saw the new world order as a death struggle between atheism and Christianity, communism and democracy.
On the one hand were figures like Stalin and Mao, and on the other were Churchill and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen of New York, broadcasting anti-communist talks on television, the then new media.
At the time, China's ruling party (the Guomindang, led by Chiang Kai-shek) was losing to insurgent rebels (the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong). Chiang's best weapon was his wife, Madame Chiang, or more properly, Soong Meiling, the youngest of the influential Soong sisters. (Sun Yatsen married another sister, Soong Chingling.)
Soong had successfully wooed the US media and politicians, appearing on the cover of Time magazine three times by 1943. It helped her, Chiang and the Republic of China that she was a Christian who had graduated from Wellesley College, Massachusetts and spoke fluent English with a southern US accent.
"The phone call was not only a courtesy call but also a strong expression of support for what Taiwan is perceived to represent to this type of politician in the US — a democratic nation in the shadow of an atheist bully."
To the anti-communist US public, therefore, Chiang Kaishek and his band of Chinese Christian democrats were just like them. US support remained strong for the Republic of China and its exiled power couple, now on nearby Taiwan. Such a worldview was only bolstered by the Korean War years. Everybody lauds a winner, and in the USA folks become even more vociferous in their support for the sympathetic yet vanquished loser.
Even though nations like Great Britain, France, Canada, Italy and a slew of the non-aligned post-colonial nations granted recognition to the People's Republic of China over the 1950s and the 1960s, the USA continued in its support of the exiled Republic of China until the late 1970s. The Taiwan lobby in the US was very connected and worked these relationships resolutely. They still do, through soft-power groups like the Chiang Chingkuo Foundation, Taiwan's equivalent to the PRC-backed Confucius Institutes.
Consequently, there exists much support for Taiwan among the US public that divides global politics into communism bad and atheist, democracy good and blessed. Rightly or wrongly, the People's Republic of China, led as it is by a communist party (so-called), is thus a ready target of enmity for such-minded analysts. Trump has many of these as his advisers, who read with dread books about China's rise and who see with loathing China's products in their malls.
Thus, the phone call between the President-elect and the President of Taiwan (herself a graduate of Cornell Law School) was not only a courtesy call but also a strong expression of support for what Taiwan is perceived to represent to this type of politician in the US — a democratic nation in the shadow of an atheist bully. It did nevertheless break a protocol in place since 1979, when President Carter formally recognised the PRC and thereby the doctrine that there is only one China. (Nixon's 1972 visit started the process, but it took several years to overcome the Taiwan lobby's rearguard action.) Xi Jinping and his advisers would certainly not have seen this coming, and initially viewed it as an unintended gaffe.
And yet, ultimately, does Trump's action matter?
Before Nixon's visit to the PRC, as noted by Margaret MacMillan in Nixon and Mao, he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1967 'Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbours.' Arguably, as the US now may be turning toward a more 1950s view of engagement, Trump's phone call could force the PRC to make sure that the US is the one 'not isolated, cherishing its own hates and nurturing its own fantasies'.
It might well be that in the 21st century, 'as China goes, so goes the world', but China can't do that with a USA that is not only not going with it but is also playing a game without discernible rules. Trump's call might just have started an entirely new, much broader conversation — and that's without even mentioning the role of Russia in this triangular relationship!
Dr Jeremy Clarke is a visiting fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU and Director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd.
Original artwork by Chris Johnston