Beijing would be wise to start adjusting, peacefully, to the new normal in US-China relations under the Trump administration, particularly with the additions of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.
When President-elect Donald Trump accepted a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the foreign-policy establishment was aghast at this breach of accepted diplomatic “protocol” – a soon-to-be American president actually having a direct conversation with “the other,” the entity whose name should not be uttered except with a comma after it, followed by the word “China.”
When Trump heard the outcry from the community of expert China hands, he did what he often does in the face of tut-tutting condescension; he doubled down by questioning the continued viability of America’s “one China policy.” This threw the China mavens into a real frenzy, as they accused him of upsetting the four-decades-old applecart of US-China relations.
The criticisms came from opposing ends of the China-Taiwan policy spectrum. Those with heightened sensitivities toward the feelings of the Chinese Communist leadership feared the dismantling of the fundamental underpinning of Richard Nixon’s opening to China – that America understood and “acknowledged” Beijing’s position that Taiwan is an inseparable part of “one China” and would not stand in the way of its incorporation into the People’s Republic as long as it were accomplished peacefully.
Was Trump now challenging what has been called the “original sin” of contemporary US China policy, throwing 40 years of “constructive engagement” into disarray and even threatening Sino-American conflict?
The angst from many in Taiwan and their American supporters was the mirror image of the empathy-toward-China contingent. They feared Trump might scrap the arrangement that had helped enable Taiwan’s democratic development and its de facto independence. After all, he seemed to suggest that America’s position on Taiwan’s fate was somehow linked to China’s performance on trade. The immediate specter was that Trump saw Taiwan as a “bargaining chip” to obtain Chinese concessions on trade or its cooperation on North Korea.
The concern of the Taiwanese and their American supporters always seemed misplaced, with the bargaining chip dynamic actually working in Taiwan’s favor, not against it. That is, to the extent China did not fully cooperate on trade or North Korea, the president would continue removing the self-imposed constraints on US policy toward Taiwan, with the Tsai call only the first shibboleth to be demolished.
Regardless of Beijing’s cooperation, Taiwan’s fate under the Trump administration was on a better course than it had been under all previous administrations. Only the pace of favorable change, not its direction, would be affected by Beijing’s behavior.
China decided not to reciprocate what was publicly portrayed as a Trump climb-down from his defiant posture on Taiwan and one China. Instead, it continued its duplicitous behavior on both trade and North Korea, undermining US national interests
In any event, as occurred when president George W Bush said the US would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, establishment figures in the government and in the academic and think-tank community went into policy overdrive to walk back the Trump comments. Reportedly, he would not speak with Taiwan’s president again without informing Beijing first, and he would abide by America’s one-China policy after all.
But China decided not to reciprocate what was publicly portrayed as a Trump climb-down from his defiant posture on Taiwan and one China. Instead, it continued its duplicitous behavior on both trade and North Korea, undermining US national interests.
Trump responded as he said he would. First, he imposed significant tariffs on Chinese important in the face of desperate cries from the international business and diplomatic communities and wild plunges in the stock market. Then, he signed the Taiwan Travel Act, the congressional call for high-level visits between Taipei and Washington, rather than vetoing it or simply letting it become law without his explicit endorsement.
All this occurred before the president announced the appointments of Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser in place of H R McMaster. Whether the two new members of the Trump team informally counseled his latest strong actions on trade and Taiwan is not known at this point, but the president’s moves are certainly consistent with their own stated no-nonsense positions on China-North Korea and China-Taiwan.
Both have openly advocated regime change as the only feasible way to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat and its criminal treatment of the North Korean people. And both, particularly Bolton, are long-standing supporters of Taiwan’s democratic security.
The US president and his new national-security and foreign-policy team seem poised to get America’s China/North Korea/Taiwan policies on a more realistic track, consistent with US interests and values, than they have been in decades.