Origins and Implications of the Taiwan Call

December 5, 2016 | 11:44 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Over the past few election cycles Congress passed a series of laws that enabled presidential candidates to begin preparing for transition immediately after obtaining their party’s nomination. This cycle a large number of Republican foreign policy professionals refused to support their party’s nominee, draining the pool of talent candidate Trump could draw upon to plan his transition. The Republican President-elect’s controversial decision to speak with Tsai Ing-wen, the President of the Republic of China (ROC), may be a consequence of these two developments.

Congress enacted significant changes to the laws governing the presidential transition process in  2004,  2010  and  2015 that gave presidential campaign staff access to classified information, US government facilities and the incumbent administration immediately after the nominating conventions. The legislation codified a general trend allowing the two major political parties to build and empower what essentially become two administrations-in-waiting before voters have a chance to decide which one will occupy the White House.

Candidate Trump’s language and behavior during the primary campaign alienated many of the Republican foreign policy professionals who normally would assume significant positions in a presidential transition. Three leading architects of Asia-related policy in past Republican candidacies and administrations; Richard Armitage, Michael Green and Aaron Friedberg, joined a large group of Republican foreign policy experts who denounced Mr. Trump as unfit for office.

“Mr. Trump lacks the temperament to be President. In our experience, a President must be willing to listen to his advisers and department heads; must encourage consideration of conflicting views; and must acknowledge errors and learn from them. A President must be disciplined, control emotions, and act only after reflection and careful deliberation. A President must maintain cordial relationships with leaders of countries of different backgrounds and must have their respect and trust. In our judgment, Mr. Trump has none of these critical qualities.”

Having taken themselves out of the running for a position in the Trump transition effort, which began shortly after the convention, the Republican foreign policy establishment left the door open for other aspirants. The people who filled the open positions related to Asia appear to be the ones who arranged the call with ROC President Tsai Ing-wen. Unfortunately, because the new laws Congress enacted did not require presidential campaigns to publicly disclose any information about the individuals it empowered to conduct transition-related activities on behalf of presidential candidates, we don’t yet know the names or the titles of many of the key people involved.

New Advisors Signal New Policies

Trump’s decision to speak with Tsai, and his decision to use her official title, violated the letter and the spirit of a series of agreements that both governments upheld as fundamental conditions of normalized diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Those agreements did not include an explicit US statement recognizing the island of Taiwan as a part of China. They did, however, formally state that the United States agrees that there is only one China: the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Ms. Tsai is not the president of Taiwan, as she is often mistakenly described in the US press. She is the President of the Republic of China (ROC). This distinction matters, especially to the Chinese. The ROC constitution claims sovereignty over the whole of China, not just the island of Taiwan. It is a rival Chinese government. The last Republican administration sternly rebuked former ROC president Chen Shui-Bian’s efforts to change the ROC constitution in a way that would limit its claims of sovereignty to the islands it now controls. President George W. Bush, repeating the language of his PRC counterparts, interpreted Chen’s efforts as an unilateral attempt to change the status quo and advance calls for Taiwan’s independence (see video below). The PRC has explicitly threatened to use “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures ” to prevent such an outcome.

For the moment, Mr. Trump is still a private citizen. But should President Trump continue to take calls from Ms. Tsai when he is in the Oval Office, or continue to refer to her as “President Tsai,” it would not be unreasonable for Chinese leaders to assume that the United States had changed its policy on Taiwan’s independence. That change is highly likely to have a significant and lasting impact on the people of Taiwan, the people of China, and the people of every allied nation and territory hosting US military bases in Asia. The economic impacts could also be quite dramatic.

Given the potential consequences, the US public, and the peoples of the region, need to know a lot more about the individuals advising President-elect Trump on Asia policy. It is remarkable that Trump’s Asia transition team was allowed to set up a call that could dramaticly impact US-China relations—one of the most important foreign policy and defense issues facing the United States—before President-elect Trump selected his Secretary of State or his Secretary of Defense. This can be explained, in part, by the changing nature of the transition process and the unusual character of the man leading it.

But the press should now take a hard and sustained look at who will be guiding President Trump on Asia policy and what they believe.

US President George W. Bush rebukes Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-Bian for unilateral moves towards independence at White House press event with PRC Premier Wen Jiabao on 12/9/03. Complete video available at C-Span.


UCS’s “China Transition Watch” is a series of occasional posts that discusses how actions and statements during the Trump transition may affect US-China relations. While not intended to be comprehensive, the goal of the series is to provide insight on key issues.


About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.