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June 23, 2017

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Trump's gesture on Taiwan clumsy, but not likely to culminate in war

The telephone conversation on Dec. 2 between U.S. 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 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 56 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 that 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 the "one China" policy but to differ on features of that China. That accord was fundamental to the comparatively effective dialogue that 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 Jan. 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.

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