The telephone conversation on December 2 between President-elect Donald Trump and President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan was relatively brief but continues to reverberate prominently in news, diplomatic and political dimensions.
Relations between Taiwan and mainland China have been convoluted since 1949, when communist forces under Mao Zedong achieved victory in the long civil war. Remnants of the Nationalist China army under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan.
In order to maintain established working relations with Beijing, Washington heretofore has generally respected the diplomatic fiction that Taiwan does not exist as a separate entity. President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China began the process of improving relations. Formal diplomatic relations were developed in 1978.
Tsai was elected with fifty-six percent of the vote in January. She is the first woman chief executive of the island, which is extremely important but submerged in the current media noise. She is the second president from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has been formally committed to independence for Taiwan, an act which Beijing has regularly declared would mean war.
The rival conservative Kuomintang Party (KMT) has taken a more flexible, pragmatic approach. Tsai's immediate predecessor, President Ma Ying-jeou, is from the KMT. He emphasized and effectively pursued rapprochement, greatly expanding economic ties with mainland China.
In a 2006 visit to New York, Ma emphasized the agreement with Beijing to accept the concept of 'one China', but differ on features of that China. That accord was fundamental to the comparatively effective dialogue which followed. Tsai has refused a formal public commitment to a 'one China, two systems' formulation.
Pragmatism nonetheless has been Taiwan's overall approach. Following Washington's formal diplomatic recognition of Beijing on January 1, 1979 Taipei launched a comprehensive essentially non-confrontational strategic response.
Consular offices in American cities were greatly expanded. Local and state government officials, along with members of the U.S. Congress, were assiduously courted. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was among those who visited Taiwan.
During the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration acceded to a demand by Beijing that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui be prevented from visiting the United States. This decision was reversed through skillfully conducted direct appeal to the U.S. Congress. The experience remains a powerful reminder of the substantial influence the small island has astutely developed in the U.S. despite -- and to some extent because of -- absence of formal diplomatic ties.
Taiwan is banker to the enormous industrial revolution taking place on the mainland. Commercially successful, generally well-educated overseas Chinese are a vital source of investment capital. Expatriate Chinese also vote in Taiwan elections.
China and the United States were directly involved as combatants in the Korean War of 1950-1953. Newly inaugurated President Dwight D. Eisenhower successfully halted the war, and also drew Taiwan tightly into a new security agreement.
That was particularly important because Republican rhetoric of the era promised to 'unleash' the nationalists on the mainland. Eisenhower indirectly neutralized the hot rhetoric while controlling Taiwan. In 1955 and 1958 tense confrontations occurred between Beijing and Washington, but Eisenhower averted war.
China supported Communist revolutionaries in the Vietnam War, despite deeply rooted enmity with Indochina. Ideological solidarity triumphed. Yet Beijing also tolerated approximately one-half million American forces, plus allies, near their border without intervening directly.
President Eisenhower visited Taiwan during the height of the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan included a Taiwan delegation in his inauguration. Trump's gesture is clumsy and disruptive but not likely to lead to war.
-- Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of 'After the Cold War' (NYU Press). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org