PARIS — I first heard the news with a text message from my son late last Friday night: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen had spoken by telephone with Donald Trump. I cannot describe the joy I felt. This was the best piece of news for Taiwan in more than 30 years, even eclipsing for me the election itself of Tsai Ing-wen, our first female president.
Of course, the United States has supported Taiwan in many ways over the past decades, but publicly it has adhered to a diplomatic position dictated to it by China, that there is only one China. American policy on the status of Taiwan has been, in a word, ambiguous. Now, President-elect Donald Trump has just given the lie to that ambiguity.
As someone who grew up in Taiwan, I can remember back to December 1978 when my military teacher told us to participate in a "spontaneous" student demonstration. It involved throwing eggs at the car of the then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who had come to Taiwan to negotiate the two countries’ future relations after the American decision to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of the People's Republic of China. This move was talked about in my country as a betrayal of democratic values, even though Taiwan was not at all democratic at the time, being ruled under martial law.
I didn’t end up going out and throwing eggs, but the experience of the betrayal remained forever etched in the memory of my generation. The irony is that, as Taiwanese historian Li Xiao-feng put it, the majority of these Taiwanese youngsters grew up with Nationalist propaganda. Under martial law and the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, followed by his son Chiang Ching-kuo, the majority of these Taiwanese students were incapable of analyzing Taiwan’s rigid diplomatic policy and political myths.
But today, Taiwan is arguable Asia's most democratic country, even more so than Japan. This incredible progress was recognized by Donald Trump in his phone call, and for that, I thank him.
Paradox of nationalisms
Over the years I remember the humiliation that I, as a native-born Taiwanese, experienced at school. I was forbidden to express myself in my native tongue. I was even fined for doing so. Fortunately I could afford this. My family was not among the poor of our village. I was the one girl in my class to have leather shoes.
This humiliation was heaped on us by the nationalist party, the Kuomintang, which was the sole governing party and the military force. By one of life’s miracles, that domination has progressively given way to the democratic system we enjoy in Taiwan today. It is thanks to the man who succeeded the Chiangs, Lee Teng-hui, the greatest statesman modern Taiwan has produced. And it is the legacy of that man that Taiwan is today presided over by a woman of the highest caliber. Having lived abroad for 25 years, I have watched this progress back at home with pride, made bitter as we continued to be shunned by the international community in favor of seeking the good graces of the Beijing regime.
Taiwan's new president, Tsai Ing-wen — Photo: MiNe (sfmine79)
If you look at a list of countries ranked by order of GDP, Taiwan does rather well. It is 22nd, putting us between Argentina and Sweden. However, if you look at the list compiled by the United Nations, you won’t find us. For the UN we don’t exist. Tokelau, with its population of 1,100 souls, is last on the list, but Taiwan, a country of 23 million people, doesn’t exist for the UN. This is yet another humiliation for the people of Taiwan.
And now, in one clear stroke, Donald Trump has found a way for us Taiwanese to feel good about ourselves. The future American president took a call from Tsai Ing-wen, or he called her. Who actually called whom doesn’t really matter; these things are arranged beforehand. What matters is that Trump has given notice to China that he’s not accepting their dictates.
Chinese official reaction has been rather muted. Their bluff has been called even before Trump assumes office, and they have no safe way to deal with it. Handing over diplomatic protest notes is a sign of impotence.
The Chinese strategy in places like the South China Sea is one of establishing facts on the ground and teaching everyone that they’d better accept this new reality. Trump has just called that into question. Countries like the Philippines which have recently discovered a new-found affinity for China may wish to reconsider their options. Japan also could come to find comfort in this renewed American interest in securing their flank.
Some will no doubt caution about reading too much into this one phone call. But as a Taiwan native I’m deeply grateful to, at the very least, see Taiwan and its anomalous geopolitics back in the spotlight. Now we will all wait to see what happens after Mr. Trump moves into the White House.
*Laura Lin is a writer based in Paris.
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