President-elect Donald Trump's phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was widely regarded as the latest gaffe for the politically inexperienced Trump. This time, though, it's a mistake that could deeply offend the Chinese government, which has claimed for years that Taiwan, as an independent nation, doesn't actually exist.
Many Americans are likely unaware of how delicate the situation is. But Trump's conversation with the president of Taiwan, as well as his subsequent defense against the negative reactions following it, could have some serious outcomes for diplomatic relationship between China and the United States.
Governments laid claim to each other's territory
The need for delicacy on the issue traces its roots back to the Chinese Civil War, which lasted from roughly 1927 to 1950 (with the exception of a tenuous truce negotiated during WWII). Mao Zedong engaged in a fierce battle against Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, with the former eventually gaining more power in rural areas and thus having the upper hand by the war's end.
Chiang and his forces, recognizing that they were losing the war, fled to the island of Taiwan just off the coast of China. The civil war between the two nations never officially ended, and some of the Chinese Nationalist Party in Taiwan maintain to this day that they are the true representatives of the people of China.
One China, two governments
It became official U.S. policy to recognize those who fled to Taiwan as the true Chinese government, following the retreat of the republican nationalists. The U.S. and other nations maintained that the island nationalists represented both the island and all of mainland China.
Even at the United Nations, where the Security Council was meant to include China as a permanent fixture, the official leadership of the Republic of China from Taiwan held onto the role as the representatives of mainland China until 1971.
That year, the Republic of China lost its seat in the esteemed international organization — and recognition across the globe, in general. Several powers around the world, however, still recognize the Chinese government residing on the island of Taiwan — including the United States, which severed ties with Taiwan in 1979.
There have movements toward compromise in the years since. In 1992 both governments recognized the need to have a mechanism for addressing one another. The Consensus of 1992 made it possible for some compromise. Both governments agreed that there is just one China, which encompasses both the mainland as well as the island of Taiwan. Who should rightfully control all of China, however, was still in dispute.
The DPP and the phone call to Trump
Not everyone in Taiwan recognizes the consensus, however, including the Democratic Progressive Party, which came to power in the Republic of China in Taiwan earlier this year. Many within that party have expressed a desire for recognition of a Taiwanese identity, including full independence from China — essentially creating a new country, breaking away from the idea of "one China" that has existed since 1992.
The results of that action could be catastrophic, and could even lead to war between the mainland and the island.
The DPP's leader and current President of the Republic of China Tsai Ing-wen, while remaining committed to full independence for Taiwan, has been willing to scale back on the forceful rhetoric, but even that could rupture relations between the island and the mainland.
Donald Trump's recent conversation with President Tsai adds to the tension. Not only has there been zero dialogue between a president of the United States and the leaders of the Republic of China in Taiwain for 37 years, but Trump speaking with Tsai comes at a time when relations between the mainland and Taiwain remain strained as the Taiwanese people call for independence.
It is unknown at this time if Trump is officially endorsing a fully independent state of Taiwan. His actions (and subsequent tweets) leave us to guess what his positions will be when he assumes the presidency in January.