China is on the move. From transforming man-made islands into military bases to bullying neighbors to stealing potentially trillions of dollars of intellectual property and military secrets, Beijing seeks not only to dominate Asia but to transform itself into a 21st-century superpower.
How to handle the rise of the People's Republic has baffled American foreign policy thinkers on both sides of the aisle for nearly a decade. But there is a simple action the Trump administration could take that would at least show China that America will not allow its aggression to go unchecked: President Trump should travel to Houston later this week and meet with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen.
Greeting the leader of one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia as she briefly stops in America as part of an overseas trip might sound innocent, even trivial, but it would be loud and clear to Beijing. It would help reinforce the peaceful status-quo that has brought prosperity to Asia for decades, demonstrating that Team Trump will stand with crucial allies and partners in their hour of need. It would also prove that things like human rights, sovereignty, democracy, and respect for international law are key components of the Trump foreign policy agenda.
Such a meeting wouldn't come out of the blue but would build on recent actions by the administration. First, at the end of 2016, when Trump was president-elect, he accepted a call from President Tsai. The conversation was short and mostly filled with pleasantries — seemingly a normal courtesy call from the sitting president of one country to the future leader of another. And yet, this seemingly innocent act spooked Beijing. The Chinese feared Trump could move America closer to what Beijing considers a breakaway island province.
At the time, many analysts dismissed the call as yet another amateur move from a national security rookie probably unaware of the fact that China considers Taiwan a "core interest" and has threatened to invade if it does not someday return to the fold. But in the year and a half that followed, the administration has indeed attempted to recalibrate its ties with Taipei.
While Washington still does not recognize the island nation as a sovereign state — it dropped formal diplomatic recognition in order to open relations with China in the late 1970s — Taiwan is no longer an outcast in Washington's elite diplomatic circles. More American arms will soon flow to Taipei. There's also talk of Taiwan purchasing the F-35 stealth fighter in the future as well as greater efforts at more formal defense cooperation.
All of that is welcomed news, but more must be done to ensure Taiwan does not slowly lose what little international freedom it has. Over the past several years, China has bought off the few diplomatic allies Taiwan has left (down to just 18 nations with formal ties now). Beijing regularly flies many of its most advanced naval and fighter aircraft close to the island, causing Taiwanese military officials to scramble forces, increasing the chance of accidental conflict. China also uses its vast economic leverage over Taiwan to ensure if it ever were to become too close to America or consider formal independence it would mean financial ruin.
In the game of international politics words and deeds matter. If President Trump were to publicly meet with President Tsai, even for just an hour, it would send a powerful message to China that no matter how strong she becomes, she cannot subjugate the nations around her. It would demonstrate that Washington will not allow China's rise to become Asia's downfall.
Just this one meeting would make a more powerful statement than any trade war, oddball tweet, or mean-spirited play on words.
Mr. President, go to Houston.