This is an anonymous letter from one liberal social activist to another, on the recent uproar over US President-Elect Trump’s call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. 

Dear Social Activist Friend,

I hope you are staying strong in the wake of this election! The aftermath has been a struggle, and it’s important that we all support each other in trying times. I’ve definitely appreciated your encouraging messages these last few weeks about Black Lives Matter, defending American democracy, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

Since you and I are very much in sync on the issues we care about, I wanted to reach out to you about the country of Taiwan, which the media has covered these past few days. I’ve already seen activists attack Trump for having a phone call with the president of Taiwan, citing fears that it will anger China. But while it seems natural to use this incident to bash the president-elect, the call isn’t what the media has made it out to be. I was hoping to share a different perspective, so we can look at the actual substance of America’s relationship with Taiwan.

Despite having only 23 million people, Taiwan is one of America’s largest trading partners—it ranked 9th last year. And we are their 2nd largest trading partner, so it’s evident that our two nations have a close commercial relationship. (For example, regardless of its brand, your laptop computer was probably made by a Taiwanese company.)

Taiwan is a successful democracy. It elected its first female president in January of this year, which was a massively historic event. Her name is Tsai Ing-wen, and her championing of social justice and economic issues won her broad support, including young people, the working class and the middle class. Taiwan’s legislature is poised to legalize gay marriage, as The New York Times has reported, which would make it the first country in Asia to do so. Oh, and did I mention, that it has universal healthcare?

Ever since the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan way, to legally authorize many types of ties between our nations, America has continued to contribute to Taiwan’s defense.

The media has missed both the contemporary and historic context. While the Carter Administration broke “official” ties with Taiwan in 1979 to try to cozy up to China, the United States has kept up strong commercial, cultural and other relations up through present day. Trade and military exchanges happen on a periodic basis, and we have what amounts to an embassy in Taipei, the country’s capital. (We’re technically just not allowed to call it an “embassy,” although it is staffed by State Department foreign officers.)

While the United States may “acknowledge” that China has made a claim that it should be allowed to take over its democratic neighbor Taiwan, our government certainly does not “recognize” the validity of this claim. The difference between those words matters in international affairs.

Even though Trump is a problematic president-elect who has said things that harm democracy in the United States, in this instance, he’s actually done a very simple and decent thing: he had a friendly phone call with the leader of one of our closest trading partners and allies. Perhaps this action appears to flout certain diplomatic practices, but in my mind, it’s actually a good thing to try to talk more with our friends. Talking doesn’t imply that any major policy changes have taken place; it’s simply a chance to have a dialogue so we understand each other better.

On issues of trade, the environment, and security cooperation, increasing numbers of scholars and experts (including people on both sides of the political aisle, who have served in China, in Taiwan, and in Washington D.C.) are questioning why we must keep Taiwanese representatives at a distance, solely based on a set of rules drafted by the Carter White House 37 years ago, as part of persuading China to help us oppose the Soviet Union.

Let’s not lump in a friendly phone call to Taiwan with Trump’s very real problems, such as his conflicts of interest, ill treatment of minorities, and pledges to “build the wall.” Rather than jumping to conclusions about whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, depending on what Trump thinks about it, I hope we can look at issue on their own terms.

Whatever Trump’s intentions with the call, the act of supporting a small democratic country is something I think all Americans can get behind. After the repeated scares about Russia they had to endure during the presidential campaign, our NATO allies Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (populations or 1.3 million, 2 million, and 3 million) might be feeling a little bit better now. The same goes for the people of Taiwan, who have long been concerned about China trying to suppress them with political threats and military force.

I don’t think anyone intends to help big countries bully small ones, but by not being up to speed on the issues, the American media has unintentionally parroted the lines commonly used by the authoritarian Chinese regime—it’s quite unfortunate. Hopefully reporters will strive to be more informed next time, instead of punting an entire democratic nation like a political football, just to score anti-Trump points. But it will take folks like you and me getting the facts right and staying engaged, so we can make sure news organizations report more accurately in the future.

I completely stand with you, as we fight for human rights, spur action on climate change, remain vigilant about the Trump administration’s shenanigans, defend our POC/LGBT/working class brothers and sisters, and strive to achieve social justice for all. Let’s do the same for our democratic friends in Taiwan.

In solidarity,

Your fellow American

P.S. I think you’d love Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen. She’s a very smart lady with a great sense of humor (who also loves cats)

(Feature photo of DCPS Walkout, Pennsylvania Avenue, by Lorie Shaull on Wikicommons, CC BY-SA 2.0)


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