Last week’s phone chat between Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen was initially explained as an amateur misstep, but it now appears that Trump was warning Beijing that he will get tough with them. Beijing bristles at the notion of Taiwanese sovereignty — implicit in Trump’s call — and is prepared to get tough back. Will confrontation escalate?

Trump advisors (anonymous, in the Washington Post) claim he understands the complex Taiwan situation and for months has been plotting a strategy to gain leverage on Beijing. His “Art of the Deal” advocates such gambits. Some Trump advisors are longtime pro-Taiwan. Nixon began the train of events that led us to marginalize Taipei in favor of Beijing, but Republican hawks always supported Taiwan. 

Just after his inauguration, Nixon ordered national security advisor Kissinger to quietly contact Beijing. Nixon, one of few presidents who read international relations, realized Soviet-China hostility gave us the opportunity to “triangulate” power. Kissinger earlier had little interest in China (but has since written the insightful “On China”).

There was nothing accidental about the “ping-pong diplomacy” of 1971. Yes, at the world table-tennis tournament in Japan that April, the U.S. team’s captain boarded the wrong bus and struck up a conversation with his Chinese counterpart. Mao heard of the amusing incident and ordered the U.S. team invited to tour China. The signal showed three years of quiet diplomacy were working. 

Kissinger that fall flew secretly to Beijing — while visiting Pakistan, where he got “ill” and disappeared for a day — to finalize Nixon’s historic visit of early 1972. Nixon’s fall 1971 announcement of his China visit jolted the world. Nixon, a bit like Trump, liked surprise and drama, but carefully controlled. It confirmed the Sino-Soviet split, which had been apparent since 1960, and undermined our basic rationale for fighting in Vietnam, where we were supposed to be stemming Chinese communism.

U.S. insistence on Taipei representing all of China in the U.N. evaporated, and the seat was transferred to Beijing in 1971. A U.S. “one-China-one-Taiwan” policy, if initiated decades earlier, might have upheld Taiwan’s independence, but it’s too late now. Taiwan really is a separate country, and Taiwanese like it that way. Virtually all mainlanders, on the other hand, regard China’s unity as sacred and worth a war.

One major catch in reopening U.S.-China relations: We had to recognize Beijing as the sole capital of a unitary China. Nixon reluctantly accepted, and “liaison offices” opened in each other’s capitals, which in 1979 turned into embassies. Nixon, who climbed to power denouncing Communist China, had to reverse himself, a shift that fellow Republicans still dislike. Eight presidents, however, have accepted Nixon’s deal. What will be the consequences if Trump overturns it?



When President Carter granted Beijing full de jure recognition in 1979, we de-recognized Taiwan and turned our Taipei embassy into the “American Institute in Taiwan,” effectively an embassy, but Beijing tolerated it. In reaction to Carter’s move, Congress passed the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act whereby the U.S. sells arms to Taiwan and would treat a forcible mainland takeover with “grave concern” but leaves U.S. military action ambiguous.

So, we have an embassy that’s not an embassy in a country that’s not a country with whom we have an alliance that’s not an alliance. But the finessed gimmick worked! Mainland China and Taiwan got peace and prosperity, and we do business with both. Trump has hotel interests in Taiwan (hmmm). It’s win-win-win — until one day Beijing loses patience and demands reunification. 

The gimmick is under strain from both sides. Mainland China seethes with nationalism — the people more than the regime — and Beijing swears that if Taiwan declares independence, it will invade the renegade province. Trump’s phone call could prompt Beijing to tear up the Nixon deal and mass forces on the Taiwan Strait. In previous crises we sent warships to oppose a Chinese crossing. Under Trump, we may have to worry less about Carrier and more about carriers.

Native Taiwanese rebelled in 1947 at the heavy-handed mainland takeover of what had been a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. Thousands died. Their resentful descendants vote for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which swept January’s elections. Trump’s phone call could elevate U.S.-Taiwan relations, as Republicans have long wanted. But Beijing will react on multiple fronts, including currency. 

On Monday, China’s yuan briefly dropped about 10 percent. Some see an intraday glitch. Others note that huge currency outflows force Chinese banks to intervene (which doesn’t stem the outflows). But some see Beijing warning Trump on China-bashing, saying in effect: “You don’t like our currency manipulation? Try this one.” 

There are reasons for firm approaches to China. But is Taiwan the right place? Strategically, politically and legally, we can make a much better stand in the South China Sea and Korea. Trump may discover that he is not the only tough guy on the block and that internationally every push yields a pushback.