Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen initiated a phone call with US President-elect Donald Trump on Friday, making it the very first of such high-level conversation between the two sides since Beijing and Washington established diplomatic ties in 1979. The call mirrored the attempt of Tsai's administration to break through its dilemma in the current cross-Straits ties and to provoke the Chinese mainland. Yet for Trump, answering the call means that he still has much to learn about how to deal with the Sino-US relationship, especially the Taiwan question.
A 10-minute talk does not necessarily mean that major adjustments in US policy toward Taiwan will be made or that Trump might break away from Washington's current policy framework. What they talked about is of greater significance. Did Trump promise Tsai to boost US military ties with Taiwan? Or did he articulate his respect for the one-China policy? No specific information has yet been revealed. Hence, no conclusion can be drawn from a single phone call.
Nevertheless, Beijing must step up its vigilance over the issue.
The Taiwan question has been a long-standing puzzle in Sino-US relations. Moves from the US relating to the island can always trigger fluctuations in Beijing-Washington ties.
In 1995, former Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui's visit to the US was considered as a major deviation made by the US from Washington's Taiwan policy since 1979. Beijing soon initiated a series of forceful countermeasures such as waves of military exercises in the Taiwan Straits. Tensions clouded not only the straits, but also the Sino-US relationship. Widespread concerns in the entire region were aroused. Then US president Bill Clinton did not expect such a backlash against his approval of Lee's visit. After the turbulence, the Clinton administration finally realized how sensitive Taiwan question could be and reiterated US support for the One China policy.
Former US president George W. Bush also set off a diplomatic scramble with Beijing over the Taiwan question. He once publicly announced he would "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan and authorized a major arm sales deal with the island. The only result was greater tensions in the Sino-US relationship.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Beijing and Washington started to cooperate more in the areas of anti-terrorism and the North Korean nuclear issue. In the meantime, with the backdrop of then Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian's pushing for Taiwan's "independence," the Chinese mainland proactively prepared to prevent Taiwan from going independent through military means.
In view of the seriousness of this case, Bush's pro-Taiwan stance appeared to switch dramatically in 2003 when he publicly voiced his opposition to Chen's ruse to change the political status of the island unilaterally. This adjustment is a major cause for the smooth ties between Beijing and Washington during later period of Bush's presidency.
As for Trump, it is too early to predict what plans he has for his future Taiwan policy. A pro-Taiwan stance is a tradition in the Republican Party. Meanwhile, as Trump attaches great importance to developing the US economy and the arms trade can bring in huge profits, he might increase arms sales to boost exports.
For the moment, Trump may have failed to take the Taiwan question seriously or realize the sensitivity over the issue from the experience of his predecessors. However, if he ever makes an effort to promote US-Taiwan military relations or increase arms sales to the island, the mainland will without doubt oppose strongly.
By then, a fierce competition between Beijing and Washington will be inevitable and Trump will be bound to comprehend what former US presidents have understood long before - the Taiwan question is far too sensitive and the bottom line set by the Chinese side can never be crossed.
After Trump's phone conversation with Tsai, many US politicians blasted Trump for his "irresponsible" rhetoric, warning that the president-elect may cause a war in the Taiwan Straits. The world will be dragged into a mess if leaders all speak irresponsibly. This shouldn't be allowed. Trump as future US president should know what to say properly on different occasions.
The author is director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. firstname.lastname@example.org Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion