By Rodger Baker

With his characteristic bluntness, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has, at least briefly, wiped away some diplomatic niceties and sent China a clear message: If Beijing wants to sit at the grown-ups’ table, it will have to act like an adult.

His method for doing so? A 10-minute phone call to the president of Taiwan. But passing such a message isn’t as simple as it sounds. The phone call broke a 40-year diplomatic precedent, something no U.S. president or president-elect has done since Washington withdrew its recognition of Taipei in the 1970s in exchange for closer ties with Beijing. For decades, the United States has stuck to the “one-China” policy, which says that the government in Beijing is the only legal representative of China. Yet at the same time Washington maintained its lines of communication with Taiwan, including trade deals and arms sales. This dual approach is predicated on the United States’ acceptance and promotion of what is essentially a piece of elaborate diplomatic fiction.

At the risk of inciting angry letters and accusations of naivety, let me say frankly that Taiwan exists. I know because I was there last year, ahead of its general elections in January 2016. Taiwan has its own independent government, laws, military and police force. It also holds its own elections and chooses its own president. That president sent Trump a congratulatory greeting in early November after the results of the U.S. vote were in, and few eyebrows were raised in the United States or China. But a phone call is another matter entirely, one that shatters the facade of Washington’s diplomatic narrative and reveals — in a way perhaps only a political outsider like Trump could — that there is clearly something silly about selling weapons to a country that, according to the official line, doesn’t exist. (Or about engaging in the linguistic acrobatics needed to say that Washington recognizes one China without making claims as to which China that is.)

Diplomacy often requires subtlety and the use of careful phrasing, parsing each word and punctuation point in every sentence. At times, though, this caution seems to become an end unto itself. Even before Washington formally shifted its recognition from Taipei to Beijing, there were those in the U.S. political establishment arguing that there should not be a one-China policy at all. Instead, they said, Washington should recognize either both governments or Taiwan’s alone (which itself would have forced the creation of another diplomatic fiction). Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the United States chose to follow its current path — acknowledging only Beijing — in an effort to weaken any Sino-Soviet bloc that might form and add to the pressure on Moscow’s eastern frontier.

But the Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union has fallen apart. Despite Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Syria and Europe, the global dichotomy between Washington and Moscow is not the same as it once was. And neither is China. From a relatively weak and isolated power in 1979, China has grown into one of the largest economies in the world whose trade and investment ties span the globe. After several massive overhauls, the Chinese military is emerging as a modern fighting force with at least some ability to project power. Chinese troops operate in the Gulf of Aden, train with Russia in the Arctic, and participate in U.N. peacekeeping missions in several different countries. China is no longer a backwater bastion against the Soviets’ eastward expansion. Rather, it is a country pressing ever outward, engaging in an aggressive One Belt, One Road infrastructure and trade initiative, and solidifying its maritime claims in Asia’s enclosed seas.

Playing the ‘Taiwan Card’

Despite commentators’ speculation that Trump was either uninformed or acting recklessly, it is highly unlikely that either Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen or Trump made the phone call without careful consideration. It is no accident that news of the conversation emerged on a Friday, when it would have less impact on global markets but was guaranteed to become the highlight of weekend talk shows. Based on recent comments made by those who advise or influence Trump, including John Bolton’s January editorial in The Wall Street Journal, the new president is clearly signaling a willingness to use the “Taiwan card” to reshape the United States’ relationship with China. Beijing’s currency manipulation, aggression in the South China Sea, refusal to encourage North Korea to curtail its nuclear weapons program, and any number of other issues could be countered by Washington’s threat to renew its recognition of Taiwan — or so the argument goes.

From China’s perspective, Taiwan is, to use a worn-out phrase, a red-line issue. Any event that alters the island’s status quo or pulls it further from the mainland’s grasp merits an immediate and firm response from Beijing. China has already reabsorbed Macao and Hong Kong, leaving Taiwan the only holdout, unique for its history as a stronghold for the defeated Kuomintang army rather than as a colonial holding of a foreign power. The last remnant of the Chinese civil war, Taiwan’s annexation by China would mark an unequivocal and final victory for the Communist Party.

But emotions are not the only things governing Taiwan’s future. More than once the island has been compared to an unsinkable aircraft carrier, a base of operations from which to challenge the Chinese mainland, should a strong foreign power decide to ally with Taiwan. Like its independence, Taiwan’s ties to other countries undermine Beijing’s plans to control the South and East China seas. Such control — or at least, the power to restrict or deny other countries’ activities in the seas — is critical to securing China’s trade and economic interests. Beijing has already shown its willingness to assert its claims, via island building, in spite of international consternation and heightened U.S. naval activity in the region.

No matter how much China might rail against any change in the U.S. dialogue with Taiwan, Beijing set a precedent, however unintentionally, for Taipei’s recognition when it agreed to open a relationship with South Korea in 1992. Prior to that year, most countries perceived only one government — whether in Pyongyang or Seoul — as Korea’s legitimate seat of power. With the end of the Cold War, however, trade arrangements among former Soviet countries collapsed. China had also resumed its plans for economic opening and reform after briefly putting them on pause in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Forming a relationship with the rising South Korea was an economic and political win for China, since it meant that Seoul had severed its connection to Taipei, presenting China with a way to take advantage of Korea’s industrial and economic growth.

Instead of recognizing only one Korea, however, China and Russia accepted both North and South into the United Nations in 1991. In doing so, Beijing inadvertently opened the door to both sides of a civil war: Each country holds claims to the territory of the other, yet they are considered equals on the international stage. Even the United States, which has formal diplomatic ties with only South Korea, recognizes the North’s existence and right to U.N. membership. Washington’s concerns about North Korea have to do with disagreements over the legitimacy and policies of the government in Pyongyang, not the existence of the state itself. Taiwan, on the other hand, is currently barred from most international groups and organizations because it is not recognized as a country.

Cutting Through the Diplomatic Fog

By holding a phone call with Tsai — however brief and limited in scope it may have been — Trump has brought the issue of Taiwan’s political status to the fore in a way that is sure to drive deep policy debates in the United States. But it will also raise questions about how Washington deals with the Chinese mainland. Of course, this is not the first time these issues have arisen from a U.S. presidential election. Perhaps the most notable was when Ronald Reagan criticized the United States’ initial decision to break diplomatic ties with Taipei and suggested that he would rethink the decision once in office. China intervened at the time in much the same way it has now by criticizing the statement, speaking with Reagan’s running mate (George H.W. Bush, a known China hand), and arguing that reality would intervene to keep Reagan from reversing Washington’s warming relationship with Beijing.

Still, 1979 was a long time ago. China is a big country that demands international respect. Beijing, however, also cleverly plays on its need to “save face,” the idea that dealings with China must be delicate — avoiding sensitive issues and, above all, keep from casting the country in a negative light. Chinese officials also have no qualms when it comes to roundly criticizing the words and actions of other governments, but they deride any criticism of Beijing as foreign interference. China rarely even has to enforce this untenable double standard: The United States and the West have taken it upon themselves to try to maintain a manner of dialogue that satisfies China’s expectations. In the Track II talks between U.S. and Chinese figures, it isn’t uncommon for the latter to berate their American counterparts while the former offer declarations of cooperation and critiques of their own government’s policies.

Abandoning this approach has its consequences, though. Diplomacy does require finesse, even if there is certainly room (or an outright need) for bluntness at times. Taiwan is and will continue to be a red line for China, and Beijing will sacrifice other areas of its foreign policy to preserve the island’s status, if not fully incorporate it into the mainland. Should the United States become more confrontational in its stance toward China, the effects will be felt by other countries throughout Asia, each of which is now trying to determine whether Trump’s call was an accidental gaffe or a calculated signal of a shift in U.S. policy to come.

By doing what he did while still president-elect, when many still consider his comments and actions to be rash and off-the-cuff, Trump has given himself some room to walk back his rhetoric, as many of his staff began to do over the weekend. Even so, he has made his point, creating enough uncertainty in Chinese leaders’ minds that they will remember it long after the media buzz has died down.