Many in the media and the Democratic Party (forgive me, for I repeat myself) are howling that President-elect Donald Trump chatted with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, and that his tweet, which actually called her by her title, "the president of Taiwan," conferred a legitimacy upon her that for the first time since 1979 or earlier, signals a major shift in American foreign policy.
The Democratic National Committee protested that President-elect Trump’s brief conversation and resultant tweet demonstrated either his incompetence or only demonstrated his supposed wish to build hotels there. The People’s Republic of China has issued a formal protest. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted that President-elect Trump’s action was a major pivot and added, "That’s how wars start." The New York Times admitted that prior Republican presidents had reached out to Taiwan but claimed that they "did not do so before taking office." The short- and long-term consequences of the conversation remain to be seen, but a little historical review is needed to correct the record.
In fact, President-elect Trump is following in the footsteps of the strong bilateral relationship between America and Taiwan (Formosa) that began under President Dwight Eisenhower and continued under President Ronald Reagan. However, one of the major initial forays of Reagan into the Taiwan-China difficulties occurred when he still was a candidate for the presidency.
In the early 1950s as the Korean War began, Democratic President Harry Truman stationed America’s VIIth Fleet between mainland China and Taiwan. In 1954 after Communist China had shelled Taiwan’s offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, Republican President Eisenhower, when asked about China’s possible invasion of Taiwan, reminded the reporters, "They’ll have to climb over the VIIth Fleet to do so." Eisenhower then signed the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of China and the United States, and the next month Congress passed The Formosa Resolution, which gave the president the authority to defend Taiwan and its islands militarily. In a film history, historian David McCullough reviewed President Eisenhower’s use of threats to use atomic weapons and as a result, Communist China backed down. Historians Evan Thomas and Shannon Tiezzi reviewed that it was Ike’s firm resolution and threats that permitted Taiwan’s continuing existence. In June 1960, as his term in office was ending, President Eisenhower visited Taiwan. Ike was greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheering Taiwanese, and in the historical memory of the island-nation, Eisenhower often is recalled as their most popular and revered American leader.
When Ronald Reagan first campaigned for the presidency in 1967-1968, often he reflected upon the firm stance Eisenhower, who was Reagan’s hidden mentor on domestic politics and on world affairs at the time, had taken in the 1950s, which had saved Taiwan. In 1972, when President Richard Nixon had his historic opening with the People’s Republic of China, he sent Governor Reagan on a sensitive diplomatic mission of reassurance to Taiwan
Seven years later, in 1979 President Jimmy Carter — having recognized the People’s Republic of China the year before — unilaterally broke America’s mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. Because the original 1954 treaty had been approved by the Senate but Carter’s rescission was not, Senator Barry Goldwater sued President Carter (Goldwater v. Carter). The Supreme Court dismissed the suit because the Senate had not issued any formal opposition. Carter’s 1979 agreement with Beijing forced the United States to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The official platform of the GOP in 1980 avoided discussion of renewed official relations with Taiwan. In a 1980 magazine interview, while running for the presidency for the third time, Reagan recalled Ike’s firm stance which had saved Taiwan and its offshore islands in 1954. Shortly thereafter, candidate Reagan sent his vice-presidential running mate, George H. W. Bush, on a mission to the People’s Republic of China. But as recounted by historian Lou Cannon, just as Bush was departing, Reagan announced a new and controversial policy that he favored establishing an official American liaison office in Taipei. In fact, Reagan had been espousing some return to official relations with Taiwan since the prior June. Reagan even called the island-nation, "The Republic of Taiwan."
As is happening to President-elect Trump now, back in 1980, candidate Reagan was attacked by the Carter administration, the media, and Communist China. In the end, Reagan affirmed his support for maintaining formal relations with the People’s Republic of China. But his suspicions of the trustworthiness of the communist country continued.
In 1982, President Reagan was negotiating with Communist China over the continuing sale of American military arms to Taiwan. Reagan agreed to issue a communiqué that America would reduce gradually such arms sales, but he remained quite worried about whether the communists could be trusted and the effects of the communiqué on his old friend, Taiwan. So, just as Reagan had been sent by Nixon to reassure Taiwan in 1972, Reagan in 1982 sent his own personal representative to Taiwan to deliver assurance. President Reagan was termed the "guardian of Taiwan." These "Six Assurances" have been confirmed by each successive administration and most recently were introduced in Congress in May 2016, by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. And unlike the 1980 GOP platform, the 2016 GOP platform reaffirmed the Six Assurances of President Reagan.
Today’s media claims that there is no precedent for a president-elect to deal with foreign affairs. This is not true. For President-elect Donald Trump is following the path trail-blazed by candidate Reagan in the summer of 1980. Reagan, first as candidate and later as president, felt a strong obligation to guard the moral and treaty legacy with Taiwan which first had been established by his mentor, Dwight Eisenhower.
So too may Donald Trump now be starting to reassess how America will help its allies in Asia — Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan — deal with the emerging moves of the People's Republic of China. In the 1950s, Quemoy and Matsu were shelled and Taiwan was threatened and only strong American resolve by President Eisenhower prevented invasion. In the second decade of the 21st century, China is moving into the South China Sea. The weakness of America since 2008 finally may be turning around due to Donald Trump, even before he is sworn in. His predecessors who similarly wanted a strong America as a beacon of freedom, Ike and "Dutch" Reagan, would be proud.
Gene Kopelson is the author of "Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman" (Figueroa Press, 2016) and has published about Reagan’s 1966 successful gubernatorial campaign with Americans of Mexican descent. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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