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.