The revelation of Trump admitting to having spoken directly with the president of Taiwan was a profound moment for me. Profound because nothing appears to have resulted from it.
It has long been established that Donald J. says and tweets exactly what he thinks. But diplomatic relations are based on common principles on mutual respect, and diplomatic language is always so focused on the exact words said and unsaid, and the meaning that conveys to various different actors. One only has to think of the wars that followed after British envoy McCartney refused to kowtow to the Chinese emperor, or the academic study of whether or not Japan has apologised for its actions in World War II.
I have studied the politics of East Asia, and even presented an overview of ‘the Taiwan question’ to my class. The existence of Taiwan as an independent, sovereign state is predicated entirely on American arms sales to the country, and US explicit and implicit reassurances that they would use military force to defend that sovereignty. The Chinese government believe uncompromisingly that Taiwan is a province of China, not an independent state. They aren’t happy at all about the present situation, and at times in the last 70 years open conflict has flared. At one point in the ’80s, Taiwan secretly began developing Nuclear weapons, but this was eventually halted.
When you study the issue of sovereignty between Taiwan and mainland China, what becomes clear is that gesture and language are of paramount importance. Everything that world powers say and do to either side is meticulously studied in both capitals. This scrutiny has only increased in recent years, as increasing numbers of the population see themselves as Taiwanese – that is, not on an inevitable path toward reunification with the mainland, but becoming a separate nation. The Taiwan Strait sits on a knife edge.
Obama barely had anything to do with Taiwan during his eight year presidency, and this was completely ordinary. During this time, relations across the strait have improved to such an extent that excessive numbers of Chinese tourists at Taiwanese attractions is now a common complaint. Both sides implicitly know that you can say and do whatever necessary domestically, but when talking to an international audience, the status quo rules. The status quo is; America does not recognise Taiwan as a country and has no diplomatic dealings with them, most certainly not between heads of state!
Which brings us to Trump’s phone call, and all of the grossly undiplomatic tweets he has issued and things he has said to other countries and other people since becoming president-elect.
Are they being ignored because what we once took as a given really no longer applies in communication between nations? Or do world leaders just not take anything he says seriously, and plan on dealing only with institutions, by established protocol, while he is president? Or are world leaders accommodating because they fear Trump, who will soon have the entire US military behind him, is unstable enough to take revenge on those who express their distaste? Or are they happy to accommodate for now, while he isn’t yet president, but have a line in the sand and will stand up for themselves at some point?
Will there come a time when a Trump tweet, to his utter bemusement, begins world war?
I took the last hypothesis and ran with it, both to practice my digital art skills and add some variety to the blogs.