The Phone Call: A Window Into Broader Questions of US-China Relations

On 2 December 2016, at 10 AM Eastern, President-elect Donald J. Trump received a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The historic call marked a significant deviation from forty-years of tradition in US-China relations and will not be soon forgotten by China’s leaders in Beijing.


Over the last four decades, not a single American president has “formally” communicated with the President of Taiwan. According to Beijing’s “One China Policy”, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) perceives Taiwan as a rogue province of China. Therefore, the PRC opposes any formal diplomatic dialogue between Taiwan and other nations, preferring that any communication with Taiwan occur via the central government in Beijing. Taiwan, the “Republic of China” (ROC), consequently struggles to maintain diplomatic relations with other countries. Although it has numerous “representative offices” around the world, it maintains only a small number of official diplomatic embassies.

It is therefore no surprise that Beijing was alarmed by Trump’s telephone call. The Chinese Foreign Ministry argued that the call infringed upon the longstanding “One China Policy” and China’s national sovereignty. President-elect Trump, however, defended his phone call with Tsai Ing-wen in a series of tweets:

“The President of Taiwan called me today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!”

Source: Twitter, 2 December 2016

“Interesting how the U.S sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but  I should not accept a congratulatory call.”

Source: Twitter, 2 December 2016

“Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into […] their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”

Source: Twitter, 4 December 2016

Looking beyond the twenty-four hour news cycles, the issues raised in the President-elect’s points about the phone call pose important questions for the future of US-China relations and international law during the upcoming presidential administration. First, will the United States and China officially have diametrically opposed conceptions of China’s sovereignty and Taiwan’s autonomy during the Trump administration? Second, to what extent will the United States expand its diplomatic, economic, and military relations with Taiwan under President Trump? Third and finally, what role does Trump see Taiwan playing in his broader vision for US-China relations and global order?

These complex questions require context and historical analysis into the nature of the relations between the US and Taiwan long before the phone call. After the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, the US and European Union imposed a weapons embargo on the PRC. Though the EU lifted this embargo in the early 2000s, the US has kept it firmly in place. This is despite the fact that US arms sales to Taiwan have continued, seemingly unaffected by this apparent contradiction. Therefore, a corollary to these questions is: What position will the Trump administration take on arms sales to Taiwan and the arms embargo against Mainland China?


In 1979, the year marking the establishment of official diplomatic ties between the US and PRC, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which authorised US arms sales to Taiwan in order to uphold its commitment to ensure that Taipei is able to “maintain a credible defence“. The initial arms sales included conventional weapons and 48 F-5 supersonic light fighter planes. The Reagan Administration vowed to continue the arms sales and some policy analysts have argued that the US-Taiwan military relationship strengthened American diplomatic leverage against Beijing. In 1989, the US imposed an arms embargo against Mainland China and continued to export arms to Taiwan, including F-5’s and F-104’s, C-130 radars, and a variety of missiles.

The last sale to-date, however, occurred on 16 December, 2015. At this time a US National Security Council spokesman, Myles Caggins, stated:

“Our longstanding policy on arms sales to Taiwan has been consistent across six different U.S. administrations […] we remain committed to our one-China policy”

The four decade-long history of arms sales between the US and Taiwan thus provides a complicating factor in the alignment between appearance and reality in relation to the US’ simultaneous respect for the One China Policy whilst honouring its arms sales to Taiwan.

It is important to note, however, that Trump’s tweets raise another dimension in the US-China relationship: economics. Trump accused the PRC of artificially devaluing the RMB against the US dollar to boost Chinese exports and imposing heavy tariffs on Chinese imports of American goods to weaken American manufacturing. This dual-prong argument served as a core theme of Trump’s campaign. If Trump’s campaign emphasis and recent tweets serve as any indication, currency devaluation and trade imbalance will become major issues in US-China relations over the next four to eight years.

Muhammet Hamza Ucar, Turkey, International Politics and Law student at Yenching Academy, Peking University and Istanbul University Political Science Faculty.

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