There is a plenty of speculation around the world that there would be a dramatic shift in the foreign policy paradigm of the United States after Donald Trump made an unexpected win in the US Presidential elections on November 8, 2016. During the election campaigns, Trump had made many unconventional statements about what his foreign policy towards Asia would be if elected to office. Now that he is President-elect, the world has started to take serious note of his every single move or even words he is uttering on foreign policy issues. His likely choice of his team is yet another speculation.
During the campaign, Trump had questioned the US’ military contribution to Japan and other allies. He had also previously spoken about the possibilities of Japan needing to acquire nuclear arms and pay the US for keeping forces on Japanese soil. Such statements worry Japan, though Abe remarked after meeting Trump that he is a “trustworthy leader”. Public endorsement on Trump’s victory in Japan is in the negative.
However, as an immediate issue to be dissected was his telephone talk with the Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, breaking with decades of foreign policy to speak directly, during which Trump and Tsai noted “the close economic, political and security ties” between Taiwan and the United States and its implications on the larger Asia, in particular on the Sino-US relations or likely US policy towards China in the Trump administration. By this 10-minute phone call, Trump discarded some diplomatic niceties and sent a strong message to China to behave as an adult and not as a bully in its neighborhood.
Throughout his presidential campaign, China was a frequent target of Trump. As he prepares to take office in January 2017, Beijing has reason to worry that Trump might adopt an aggressive stance vis-à-vis relations with China. Since the day when communism triumphed in China in 1949, and Chang Kai-shek fled the mainland to what then was called Formosa (present Taiwan), China has regarded the self-governing Taiwan as a breakaway province and threatened to use force, if needed, to integrate the island with the mainland. Amidst such stance, the US and China enjoy a fragile peace marked by delicate political rhetoric and rising economic integration.
This telephone talk with Tsai was enough to anger China. China lodged a diplomatic protest with the US over the call. This is because it is highly unusual and unprecedented for a US President or President-elect to make direct communication with the leader of Taiwan. For record, the US broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 after it decided to establish diplomatic relations with the communist government in the mainland. In the subsequent U.S.-China Joint Communiqué of 1979, the U.S. recognized Beijing as the sole legal government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China. This meant US endorsement to what is known as “one China” policy. Under this change in policy, the US recognises Beijing as representing China but retains unofficial ties with Taiwan. Understandably, therefore, for the President-elect to have a direct telephone talk and offer congratulations for becoming President of Taiwan earlier in 2016 was bound to be interpreted in Beijing as a likely change in US policy towards China. As of now, no US President or president-elect had such contact with a Taiwanese leader since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Having maintained unofficial ties, the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment under the Taiwan Relations Act. Though Taiwan is not recognised as a sovereign country, the US has sold arms worth $12 billion to Taiwan in three decades. Trump was bemused by the reaction to his phone talk with Tsai. He observed: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” He reminded those raising objections that over China’s objections, President Barack Obama a year ago authorised a $1.83 billion sale of defensive weapons to Taiwan, including two frigates, amphibious assault vehicles, and anti-aircraft and anti-ship systems.
Both the leaders discussed issues affecting Asia and the future of US relations with Taiwan. A statement from Tsai’s office stated that Taiwan hopes to strengthen bilateral interactions and contacts, besides setting up closer cooperative relations with the US. Tsai further expressed US support under the Trump administration for Taiwan’s participation in international affairs. It is understood that Trump and Tsai “shared ideas and concepts” on “promoting domestic economic development and strengthening national defence” to improve the lives of ordinary people. Such an assertion is bound to anger China. China will now make efforts to identify if this signals any intent on the part of Trump to alter longstanding US policy towards Taiwan.
In continuation of his unconventional statements on foreign policy issues, Trump continued making statements in the same vigor after winning the Presidency without consideration for the implications, thereby flouting diplomatic practices without consulting the State Department, which is in charge of US diplomacy. It is unclear if Trump really understands the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue in conducting diplomacy.
Does the phone conversation point to a potential rupture in America’s China policy? This is because recognizing Taiwan as a part of China is a fundamental principle of the Sino-US relations and based on this premise bilateral ties were normalized. Beijing’s ire was therefore expected. Beijing suspects Trump’s real intentions as the latter has called the former as “currency manipulator” and accused for military expansion in the South China Sea. He also threatened to impose high tariffs on Chinese imports to the US.
If Trump does in fact implement what he has hinted, he would have nullified what all previous Presidents have done, including Barack Obama being the first US President to visit China in 2009 in the first year in office, thereby crafting a new course for US policy towards China.
Beijing urged Trump to exercise caution, reminding that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of the Chinese territory. It further reminded that the “One China” principle is the political foundation of Sino-US relations. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement: “We urge the relevant side in the US to adhere to the ‘one China’ policy, abide by the pledges in the three joint China-US communiqués, and handle issues related to Taiwan carefully and properly to avoid causing unnecessary interference to the overall China-US relationship.”
If indeed Trump has new idea in his mind on the Taiwan issue, the possibility of a trade battle between the world’s two largest economies cannot be ruled out when he takes office. His aggressive intent was all in display when China was the frequent target during his presidential campaign. He had remarked: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency [making it hard for U.S. companies to compete], heavily tax our products going into their country [the US doesn’t tax them] or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?”
Giving reply to his own questions, he had said “I don’t think so!” Trump also knows that America’s trade deficit with Beijing in goods and services in 2015 ballooned to $366 billion, an increase of 6.6 percent from the previous year, though China remains America’s largest trading partner. Correcting this imbalance could be in Trump’s mind. US politicians often accuse China of artificially depressing its currency, the renminbi, in order to boost its exports, the reason behind the trade imbalance. But America would have little leverage with China as China holds about a trillion dollars in US government debt and no pressure from the US Treasury to open negotiations with Beijing on allowing the renminbi to rise may succeed.
During the election campaign, Trump was blunt about China, highlighting the huge trade deficit and blaming China for this. In May, he had remarked: We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they are doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.” If Trump toughens his position, the prospects of a trade war might not be unthinkable.
Following Beijing’s reactions, damage control efforts commenced. Trump’s team downplayed the telephone conversation with Tsai. The Vice President-elect Mike Pence describing it as a courtesy, saying that any new policy on China would be decided after his inauguration. Pence observed: “It’s a little mystifying to me that President Obama can reach out to a murdering dictator in Cuba in the last year and be hailed as a hero for doing it, and President-elect Donald Trump takes a courtesy call from the democratically-elected leader in Taiwan and it’s become something of a controversy.”
While dismissing the controversy as overblown, Pence did not dispute that Trump intends a more assertive US posture towards China on trade and other matters. It is unclear if China would see Trump’s statements stem from his “inexperience”. However, China warned that breaching the ‘one China’ policy would “destroy” relations between Washington and Beijing.
Ned Price, spokesman for the US National Security Council also said that there was no change to “our longstanding policy on cross-Strait issues” and that the US remains committed to ‘one China’ policy based on the three Joint Communiqués and Taiwan Relations Act. But according to Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to Trump, it is within the power of the President to alter it.
It is believed that the 93-year old Henry Kissinger who reset US relations with China in the 1970s is also advising Trump and visited Beijing for a talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping but remains unclear on what transpired during the talks. Taiwan remains as the most sensitive issue between the US and China.
Notwithstanding the hyperbole emanating from Beijing following the telephone talks, it is a truism and the world knows that Taiwan and China are two separate countries and many countries have close economic relationships with both. China has itself extensive trade relationships with Taiwan and many Taiwan-based industries have invested in China. It can be interpreted that China itself recognizes Taiwan indirectly as a sovereign country for all practical purposes. Those who accept this line of argument do not see any sense in China’s objection that Trump and Tsai had a tele-talk.
However, the telephone talks have opened a Pandora box on what could likely be the course of Sino-US relations under Trump. China-watchers are flooded for opinions on the issue, should Washington recalibrate relations with Taipei? The call might not have been important for its content but the way it was made is raising eyebrows as it implicitly recognized Tsai as a head of state, a radical departure from America’s existing Taiwan policy.
Yo-Jie Chen of Columbia University is of the opinion that irrespective of the fact whether the call was “a strategic move or a foolish gaffe”, Taiwan “already enjoys de facto independence” but “not seeking to declare independence for the obvious reason – the near certainty that Beijing would fire missiles against the island”.
According to her, Taiwan is pragmatic in thinking about its future and would not favor provoking a war. From this perspective, the Western concern on Taiwan’s future is over blown. Taiwan’s strategy is to deepen its relations with the US and with other states and international organizations generally in a functional and meaningful way. This seems to be Taiwan’s modest and reasonable goal. However, Taiwan’s democratically elected leaders are constrained to interact with their counterparts in countries that do not have diplomatic ties with Taiwan because such countries succumb to China’s pressure.
While the US itself is bound by its commitment to the ‘one China’ policy, it does maintain extensive political, economic, social, and cultural relations with Taiwan even without formally recognizing the island. Yo-Jie Chen argues that there are precedents to back such a policy. For example, from 1955 to 1970, Washington and Beijing held a series of ambassadorial-level talks in Geneva and Warsaw regarding the repatriation of national even though the two sides then had no diplomatic relations.
What Trump probably could do without offending Beijing too much is to enact legislation, according to Yo-Jie Chen, “to permit high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the U.S. and to meet with U.S. officials and to permit the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office – Taiwan’s de facto embassy – to conduct official business in the US”.
However, thus far Beijing has put pressure on countries willing to embrace Taiwan into their fold and prevented Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. For example, Yo-Jie Chen cites: In November 2016 the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) rejected Taiwan’s application in 32 years to attend Interpol’s annual meeting as an observer.
Soon after, a Taiwanese NGO dedicated to the research of rare diseases, which had been invited to take part in an UN-affiliated meeting, was not even permitted to enter the UN building. It is to be seen if Trump can reverse such experiences following his talks with Tsai so that Taiwan can have access to global forums and participate in global affairs.
It remains to be seen if Trump would be more sympathetic to a democratic nation-state living in the shadow of a giant authoritarian and expansionist neighbor and provide a better platform at the global stage than what Taiwan enjoys now.
J. Michael Cole, Taipei-based Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, opines that “in an ideal world, where morals rather than national power determines the courses of history”, and in Taiwan’s case, it seems is trapped in the currents of powerful relationships. Therefore Trump may be constrained in implementing his Taiwan policy, if he at all chooses to do so, as the same could hurt relations with China, a key player in international affairs and an economic powerhouse. If Trump makes a cost-benefit analysis, his choice of a pro-Taiwan policy may see costs as high than benefits, which is why a truly transformative recalibration that would affect fundamentally the relationships with China seem difficult, though not unlikely.
As things stand, so long as Taiwan does not declare a formal independence, which seems unlikely for some time, Beijing would not have any compelling reason to seek military reunification. The best that Trump could have in mind is to use the Taiwan card to niggle China in order to address to crucial bilateral economic issues as well as make China mend some of its behaviour in its immediate neighborhood.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.