Last week, Tsai Ing-wen phoned Donald Trump. They spoke for about 10 minutes. The president-elect later referred to Ms. Tsai, who heads a government the United States does not officially recognize, as "the president of Taiwan." In Beijing, the news landed with the force of a tsunami.
Mr. Trump may have been trying to deliberately poke China, a frequent target of his on the campaign trail. If so, that was a mistake, and a case of courting conflict for its own sake. Taking a jab at China may play well with "Make America Great Again" voters. But it's hard to see what benefit those same Americans will gain from manufacturing a conflict in a world that already has more than enough.
Communist China deserves to be criticized regularly; it is an undemocratic regime that represses its own people and frequently bullies its neighbours. None of that should ever be whitewashed. But on Taiwan, the hard men of Beijing have largely held up their end of a complex bargain that has allowed everyone to save face – and keep the peace.
For more than 40 years, Washington and Beijing have maintained a delicate but extremely effective détente over Taiwan. The deal is largely about careful employment of language – not exactly Mr. Trump's strong suit. The arrangement involves layers of ambiguity and even hypocrisy, but it has assured the peace, while protecting the effective independence of democratic Taiwan. The centrepiece of the deal is an understanding that an effectively independent Taiwan will not refer to itself as actually independent. Under the so-called One China Policy, that is Beijing's bright red line.
Back in 1971, a majority of the United Nations voted to give China's UN seat, which comes with one of the five permanent chairs on the Security Council, to the Communist People's Republic of China, or PRC. (Canada had recognized the PRC a year earlier.) Until then, most of the world had treated the Republic of China, or ROC – which retreated to Taiwan in 1949, after losing the Chinese civil war – as China's official government.
Washington was willing to recognize Beijing, but it wanted to assure Taiwan's continued autonomy. But Beijing demanded that the world treat China as one country, with Taiwan as a province.
The two sides squared the circle by agreeing that Taiwan could enjoy a kind of de facto independence, so long as America, its Western allies and Taiwan itself agreed to forgo de jure independence.
As a result, Taiwan is an effectively independent state that is officially not independent, or even a state. The woman Mr. Trump spoke with is not the president of Taiwan, she is instead the president of the Republic of China – a government with which Washington, Ottawa and most other governments do not have diplomatic relations. No diplomatic relations, but all sorts of other relations: economic, cultural and (quietly) political.
For example, there is no embassy of Taiwan in Ottawa, and no Canadian embassy in Taipei. But the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Ottawa functions like an embassy, though its ambassador must call himself a "representative," not an ambassador. Canada and Taiwan do about $5-billion a year in direct trade. Canadians travel to Taiwan and do business there, and vice versa, without dealing with the Beijing government.
Is this arrangement entirely fair to the people of Taiwan? Honestly, no. A growing number of Taiwanese tell pollsters they would be happy to be citizens of an independent Taiwan, and that they feel more Taiwanese than Chinese. There is, strictly speaking, an unfairness in telling the people of democratic Taiwan that they can never be officially independent of communist China. And absent the option of independence, the Taipei government is obliged to maintain the fiction that it believes itself to be the government of all of China.
In theory, this is galling; in practice, however, the China-U.S. arrangement means the people of Taiwan get to enjoy most of the fruits of independence without having to start World War III to get them. It's not a bad trade-off.
Ms. Tsai earlier this week insisted that her phone conversation with Mr. Trump was not an attempt to change the status quo. "We all see the value of stability in the region," she said.
For its part, Beijing overreacted to the Tsai-Trump conversation by demanding that, when Ms. Tsai next month visits Guatemala – it is one of the few countries that recognizes the ROC – the U.S. refuse Ms. Tsai's plane permission to refuel. In the past, quick travel stops in the U.S. have allowed quiet, unofficial visits with American officials; now China is trying to stop such meetings. Mr. Trump tried to push China; China is now trying to push Mr. Trump, to see if he will back down and lose face.
It's a pointless but dangerous battle of wills. It can't be allowed to escalate.