In his first semiofficial act of foreign policy, President-elect Trump affronted China and upset the apple cart of US-China relations by accepting a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, breaking thirty-seven years of American tradition.
China considers Taiwan a renegade breakaway province, and its leaders were not pleased when Trump’s aides reported that Trump and Taiwan’s President have spoken about “close economic, political, and security ties” between the two countries. When the news of the Trump-Tsai phone call first broke, foreign-policy experts were appalled; everyone generally agreed that it was a dramatic departure from four decades of the United States’ official non-recognition and partial isolation of the island that both China and Taiwan consider their own.
At that time, it was unclear whether Trump with this decision intended to abruptly change geopolitics, or whether this was simply a new administration-unschooled in the diplomatic protocol of US-China relations-incompetently improvising. There is indication of both; in either case, the manner in which Trump chose to act was very dangerous. The Asian governmental and scholarly communities however remain divided on whether the Trump-Tsai call was inherently a good or a bad thing.
Trump’s unorthodox conversation was followed by a presidential tweet in which he addressed concerns on the US One China policy: “I fully understand the ‘One China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade”– another break from policy, this time dating back to Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing.
Following this, many feared a substantial policy shift was underway; perhaps the US was going to use Taiwan as a “bargaining chip”. Statements from secretaries-designate Mattis (Defense) and Tillerson (State) signaling a vigorous U.S. response to aggressive Chinese actions in the South China Sea didn’t help calm tensions either.
Several warnings were forwarded from Beijing to the new US administration against the dangers of letting ongoing policy discussions on Taiwan go uncorrected, and how that could jeopardize the future of US-China relations.
From the very start of his campaign, Trump has been tough on China, holding it responsible for everything from currency manipulation to using ‘climate change’ to help its own industries. Owing to Trump’s stance on One China, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly refused to speak to the US president until Trump reaffirmed the One China policy.
China regarded the Taiwan call as an extremely destabilizing event not because the call itself was going to alter US support for Taiwan-as it didn’t-but because it brought out the unpredictability and capricious nature of the incoming Presidency.
Earlier this month, it became clear that Trump will leave analysts guessing on US-China ties.
Trump abruptly reversed course over the phone with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, when he reportedly promised to honor and observe the “One China” policy. Following this, Trump and his advisers began singing a different tune, implying that analysts may have jumped the gun on this one.
Since it was not confirmed whether any concessions were made to facilitate the accommodation from either side, from this point on, a different set of questions and concerns surfaced: did China agree to limit its militarization in the South China Sea? Did President Trump and Xi finally outline where the two countries individually stand on ‘One China’?
China is clear in its One China principle: Taiwan is part of China and China isn’t having any two ways about it. America however has for long remained ambiguous on the matter: Washington acknowledges China’s claim but hasn’t officially agreed or disagreed on the legitimacy of the claim, as long as the Taiwan question is settled peacefully.
Even though the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act makes Taiwan’s security a matter of US national interest, China continues to assume the US position on One China is identical to Beijing’s One China principle.
President Trump must clearly articulate the US policy on One China and what the US means by the ‘peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue’. President Trump has a knack for ‘telling it like it is’ that could be best put to use in removing all ambiguities and setting China straight on America’s take on the Taiwan question.
Trump backtracking on his initial position on the One China policy may have allowed Beijing to think that it can call Trump’s bluff anytime with impunity. This episode has also dented China’s trust in the Trump administration’s future statements. Indeed allies and enemies alike are now skeptical of Trump’s commitment to Asia, especially post-TPP withdrawal. In wake of recent events, to many, Trump’s “America first” mantra is starting to sound like “you are on your own”. It is essential for Trump to step up, address the Tsai and then the Xi phone call, and provide much-needed strategic clarity on the One China issue. As the champion of ‘straight talk’ perhaps this much can be expected of Trump.