On 2 December 2016, Tsai Ing-Wen, the president of Taiwan, called U.S. President Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the recent election. Nine days later, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that ‘everything is under negotiation… including One China,’ a direct affront to the People’s Republic of China. In Taiwan, news of this development sparked celebration nationwide: Freddy Lim, the leader of the progressive New Power Party said ‘Trump will not be restricted by the established foreign policy… I would definitely love to see that he would retain his outspokenness, especially if [he] can use it to make a breakthrough in terms of traditional restrictions on Taiwan-U.S. relations.’
The relations Lim refers to are the boundaries set upon U.S.-China relations under the Shanghai Communiqué and resulting ‘One China’ doctrine. In 1971, the U.S. under former president Richard Nixon’s administration was looking to extricate itself from the Vietnam War as well as shift from a policy of containment towards détente. Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reached out to Beijing – until that time, the U.S. had solely recognised Taipei as the legitimate China. In exchange for opening relations once more, the U.S. promised to sever ties with Taipei and formally recognise the government in Beijing as the legitimate China. The resulting ‘One China’ policy is now the cornerstone of Sino-American relations today. Essentially, it states that there is only one China, although it does not specify on which side of the Taiwan Strait the ‘China’ referred to within the document is. Both Beijing and Taipei agree to the document, both considering themselves to be the legitimate entity of China. However, it is a tenuous agreement, and the choice made by large foreign states such as the U.S. for recognising either side as the legitimate ‘China’ weighs heavily on the minds of elites on both sides of the strait.
That’s why Donald Trump’s statement set off so many alarm bells. The People’s Republic of China has almost gone to war multiple times over Taiwanese independence, and still maintains the possibility it will go to war in order to ‘reunite’ China as one. Even if China does not exercise its hard power, a trade war would be disastrous for the U.S. China represents a massive economy – in 2015, U.S. goods and services trade totalled $659.4 billion and China is still the U.S.’s largest goods trading partner with $598 billion in total goods trade. This trade is estimated to uphold approximately 251,000 jobs in the U.S. today.
Luckily, for all of Trump’s wild rhetoric, on 9 February 2017, Trump agreed to honour the ‘One China’ doctrine after a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Paul Haenle, the director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, said ‘Trump played with the notion of using this arrangement as leverage, but I think he was convinced… That this is not where the U.S. administration can get leverage. The ‘One China’ policy is not a card on the bargaining table – it is the table itself… The future is not ours to bargain away.’
Still, the question remains: what is the Trump agenda in regards to Taiwan, exactly? In the month since he was inaugurated, Trump has already given his administration a reputation for conflicting agendas and commitments – likely something Chinese elites will not forget. But Trump’s backing down on China also showed China’s leadership that Trump can be dealt with, something Shi Yinhong, a professor of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing mentioned, stating, ‘Trump lost his first fight with Xi and he will be looked at as a paper tiger. This will be interpreted in China as a great success.’ While Trump certainly made a smart decision, likely avoiding what could have been a heavily damaging confrontation with global consequences, his actions will be interpreted by Chinese leadership as ‘merely the latest American president to come into office talking tough on China, only to bend eventually to economic reality and adopt more cooperative policies.’ Basically, now that Beijing knows it has the upper hand, Trump’s bluster about taking power away from China will be just that: bluster. Moreover, his reversal on the ‘One China’ doctrine may have won him short-term good favour from Beijing, but it is highly unlikely the Communist Party of China (CPC) has much trust in the Trump administration.
What can Trump do to mend the relationship, or break away from his ‘paper tiger’ status and show China he actually means business? While growth in the Asian nation has slowed considerably in recent years, China continues to be one of the world’s largest continuously growing economies, and any economic move against China would greatly hurt domestically for Trump. Today, China maintains the largest standing army in the world and has steadily grown its navy and missile program in the last decade, and, if provoked over Taiwan, would not hesitate to act. So far, the CPC has actively sought to avoid this possibility, but a Trump reversal on the ‘One China’ doctrine would change the status quo. In a recent interview, Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said, ‘Trump isn’t attached to any particular policy line with China or anyone else. So ‘working together’ could also be dumped whenever it suits.’
The main issue is Trump has truly backed himself into a corner, and there is very little he can do to get himself out without seriously damaging the U.S. abroad. Moving forward, Trump will likely face tough times against China on every front, and may have to face the fact that in regards to China, he will have to back down more often than not. Either way, China is committed to the ‘One China’ doctrine, and Taiwanese independence will continue to be nothing but a pipe dream.