The atmosphere here is almost jubilant. The phone call last weekend from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan to President-elect Donald J. Trump — the first contact between a Taiwanese president and an American president or president-elect since at least 1979 — has received rare bipartisan support here on this self-governing island off southern China. It was, many agree, a great thing for the country.
Still, in an interview on Tuesday, her first since the call, Ms. Tsai said that the implications of the direct contact with Mr. Trump were limited. “I have to stress that one phone call does not mean a policy shift,” she told me and a small group of other American journalists who traveled here on a reporting trip organized by the East-West Center, a Hawaii-based nonprofit organization. “I do not foresee major policy shifts in the near future because we all see the value of stability in the region.”
But Ms. Tsai’s statement is unlikely to dampen the excitement. For the first time in years, this island of 23 million is making headlines around the world. That’s cause for celebration in a country that usually feels abandoned and ignored — even if it remains unclear how United States policy toward China will really change under Mr. Trump.
“In Taiwan, we have this feeling that we are being forgotten by the world,” said Szu-chien Hsu, a political scientist and president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. “We are this vibrant democracy, but people always forget about us.”
As China has grown in wealth and stature, Beijing has steadily chipped away at Taiwan’s standing in the world. Taiwan’s economy is the fifth largest in Asia and the 22nd largest in the world. Yet the island is shut out of membership in international organizations like the United Nations, and can’t even accept Olympic medals under its own flag or preferred name.
Even so, Taiwan has developed its own democratic traditions right under China’s nose. Taiwanese are fiercely proud of their democracy. Many here crave recognition for this accomplishment. In our interview, Ms. Tsai alluded to the kinship that Taiwanese felt with liberal democracies like the United States as one reason for the contact with Mr. Trump. “The phone call was a way for us to express our respect for the U.S. election,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the United States, many foreign policy experts reacted with alarm. “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” Evan Medeiros, a former Asia director at the National Security Council under President Obama, told The Financial Times. “With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for U.S.-China relations.”
The United States maintains a careful balancing act in its relations with Taiwan. Beijing views Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory, though the island has governed itself since 1949. China demands that other countries adhere to a “one China” policy, having diplomatic relations with Beijing or Taipei, but not both. A vast majority of the world, of course, chooses Beijing.
The foreign policy establishment’s dismay over the call to Mr. Trump plays into the idea that the United States-China relationship is fragile and must be painstakingly nurtured to prevent international crisis. But this may be a fallacy. Relations between the two countries have remained largely stable since official diplomatic relations began in 1979, and even the Tiananmen Square uprising and the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, when the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area in response to provocative missile tests by China, did no lasting damage.
While United States-Taiwan relations remain informal but strong, some Taiwanese are frustrated with Washington’s apparent fixation on pleasing China. “The people who quickly condemn this in the U.S., they do so either to kowtow to China or to attack Trump,” Kwang-yin Liu, a reporter at CommonWealth Magazine in Taipei, told me. “Few really care about what values Taiwan stands for.”
Ms. Tsai’s call to Mr. Trump carries a risk for Taiwan, whose economy is closely intertwined with China’s. China has already expressed its displeasure with Ms. Tsai’s less Beijing-friendly administration by restricting mainland tourism to the island. Beijing’s reaction to Ms. Tsai’s conversation with Mr. Trump so far has been relatively mild, but it could easily retaliate for the phone call, further limiting tourist permits, or even poaching Taiwan’s few remaining allies, for example, by offering trade deals in exchange for recognizing China instead of Taiwan.
The latest country to switch its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to the People’s Republic was the tiny African nation of Gambia in March. Further diplomatic losses would be a heavy blow to Taiwan. One senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me, “We do not want to play this up to confront China.”
It is, by contrast, far more difficult for China to retaliate against the United States without harming itself in the process. Such retaliation could include China’s reluctance to sign on to American foreign policy priorities, like sanctions on Iran or efforts to halt North Korea’s missile program — important, to be sure, but hardly existential threats to the United States.
Even though the repercussions it faces are far greater, Taiwan seems less afraid of standing up to the Goliath next door than its more powerful North American friend. Despite facing a sober future, Taiwanese will continue to celebrate what they see as an overdue recognition of their hard-won existence. The United States seems fainthearted by comparison.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is on leave from Foreign Policy magazine, where she is an assistant editor.