Americans dangerously underestimate the complexity and ambiguous
nature of Taiwan’s feelings about the mainland, and the emotional
force this issue arouses on both sides…

In his farewell address, George Washington warned the country to avoid entangling foreign alliances. In the Cold War era following the end of World War Two, Washington’s wise advice seems to have been forgotten, and we got tangled up in treaties and official ribbon in our good-intentioned national effort to prevent the next war, while standing up to communist tyranny and expansion. Treaties and other obligations made in the past and under different circumstances still bind us, and like abandoned land mines, some of them are still touchy enough to blow up in our faces.

More than a month before his inauguration, our president elect has—perhaps inadvertently—unbalanced America’s delicate relations with Taiwan (officially named the Republic of China) and mainland China (the People’s Republic of China) by accepting a phone call from Taiwan’s president who took office last March, Miss Tsai Yingwen. The disruptive nature of that phone call puzzles most Americans, who, on the rare occasions they think about Taiwan at all, naturally take the side of the virtuous little island standing up to the menacing red dragon across the Straits of Taiwan. That’s an admirable natural response, but it may not be a wise or realistic one.

I’m what might be called an “old Taiwan hand.” I first visited the island on an R&R leave from Vietnam, and I was taken with the friendly hard-working people, the food, the scenery, the world’s greatest collection of Chinese art at the National Palace Museum, and the cheerful but vigilant energy of the Republic of China military, our allies in the war against communism in East Asia. Those were the days when the two gigantic figures of Chinese political history were still alive and in power—Chiang Kaishek in Taiwan and Mao Zedong on the mainland. After my military service, I returned to America and started college, but I soon got fed up with the anti-war movement and decided to go back to Asia to learn more about that fascinating part of the world. I went to Taiwan, where over a period of years I learned the language, became familiar with the culture, went to college, married one of my classmates, worked, and where our children were born. Although I live in California now, I live in the largest Chinese ethnic enclave outside Asia, and work as a Mandarin/English interpreter. From 1970 to now, I have never gone a day without contact with people from Taiwan and mainland China. My wife and I occasionally lead tour groups to China.

If we want to understand why President Tsai’s telephone conversation with President-Elect Trump is significant, it’s necessary to know a little history. Taiwan’s place in Chinese history began tentatively in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), when Chinese immigrants began moving into Taiwan and the chains of smaller islands along the mainland coast. But it wasn’t until the last years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when forces of the Manchuria-based Ching Dynasty had conquered northern China and were sweeping down into southern China that large-scale immigration from the mainland began.

This was also the first time that Taiwan became a refuge and national recovery bastion, and there are plenty of colorful stories and historical figures from that era that we’ll skip over here because this piece is already getting too long and is bound to get longer. Eventually, the Ming loyalists were defeated and Taiwan joined the rest of China under the Manchu Ching Dynasty. The Manchu rulers did a fine job of assimilating to Han Chinese culture, but by the second half of the 19th century, the dynasty was corrupt, weak, and unpopular.

In 1894, China and Japan went to war over the control of Korea. Because Manchu emperor Dowager held power over China, but squandered the money that should have gone to modernizing the Chinese military while Japan had been building a very modern navy modeled after the British Royal Navy, China suffered a disastrous defeat. This is when the United States first got involved. Japan initially demanded that Ching Dynasty China cede its own Manchurian homeland to Japan, but this was unacceptable. An American international lawyer by the name of John W. Foster was called in to negotiate. (John W. Foster had served briefly as President Harrison’s secretary of state, and was the grandfather of later Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles.)

Since the Japanese could see that Manchuria was off the table for now (they’d take it by force in the 1930s), they demanded all the Chinese islands between the Dachen archipelago and Hainan, off the coast of northern Vietnam. This included the contested Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands that now present another potential problem for America, but most importantly–and most coveted—Taiwan. Aware that Taiwan had a history of anti-Ching resistance, the Manchus were not heartbroken at the thought of ceding it to Japan. But the majority Han Chinese were outraged at the very thought of giving a Chinese province to the Japanese. That the Ching Dynasty—with the encouragement of its paid legal counsel, John W. Dulles—went ahead and ceded Taiwan to Japan was one of the last straws that 16 years later led to the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China.