December 15, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Trump Stokes Uncertainty with China
On December 11, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump hinted for the second time in as many weeks at a potentially seismic shift in U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic of China under his incoming administration. In an interview with Fox News, Trump said, “I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy.” Trump went on to express a desire to link the issue of Taiwan’s independence to other areas of contention in U.S.-China relations, such as trade, China’s expansion in the south and east China seas, and North Korea’s nuclear program. The statement came nine days after the President-elect broke decades of U.S. diplomatic protocol—which has explicitly disavowed official diplomatic ties with Taiwan—and accepted a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. Taken together, these actions cast doubt on the sanctity of U.S. support for the ‘one China’ policy, itself a four-decade pillar of U.S. policy toward China.
The question of Taiwan’s independence–and U.S. support for the ‘one China’ policy–is viewed by Beijing as one that cuts to the core of China’s national interests. Already concerned over historic challenges to Chinese territorial integrity in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, Beijing views any potential move toward Taiwan’s independence as a red line. Trump’s statements prompted harsh rebuke from the Chinese government, including assurances that attempts to revise the policy—or link it to other issues—would trigger an end to U.S.-China bilateral cooperation over key issues.
The risk of escalation over Taiwan is compounded by uncertainty and contradictions in the respective policies of the U.S. and China. The U.S. has long employed ‘strategic ambiguity’ over the issue, while officially maintaining the ‘one China’ policy and foregoing official diplomatic ties with Taiwan since 1979. However, extensive U.S. defense support to Taiwan is encoded in American law, and the U.S. has been one of Taiwan’s primary military suppliers. The overarching goal of these seemingly contradictory policies is to discourage the two sides from making risky unilateral moves that could lead to war—such as an official Taiwanese declaration of independence, or bellicose military action on China’s part—while encouraging the peaceful reunification of both governments. However, the contradiction inherent in these policies creates uncertainty over a likely U.S. response in the event of a China-Taiwan conflict. For its part, China has consistently repeated its intention to resolve the question of Taiwan through peaceful means, while simultaneously emphasizing its willingness to use force to prevent Taiwanese independence and maintaining an aggressive military posture toward the island.
Thus, all sides are operating in an environment characterized by uncertainty, with each side questioning the other’s intentions. Ultimately, the greatest danger is not a break in diplomatic protocol, or even a President-elect’s casual statement casting doubt on the ‘one China’ policy—such tepid endorsements of Taiwan are unlikely to prompt Taiwan’s leaders to openly declare independence. Rather, the danger is that such actions could embolden Taiwan’s leaders to take steps that China may misinterpret, leading to a risky escalation in rhetoric and action between Beijing and Taipei, with a fledgling U.S. administration caught in the middle.
Another looming challenge for the U.S.-China relationship is the sharp divergence in diplomatic style between the President-elect and the Chinese government. Whereas the Chinese government values consistency in diplomatic protocol—which it interprets as a sign of stability in policy—Trump has repeatedly emphasized a foreign policy predicated on unpredictability, often manifest in an unconventional communication style.
Arguably, the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century is that of the U.S. and China. China’s economic relevance and growing military power—both currently unmatched by other U.S. rivals—suggest that the most momentous task for the U.S. in the coming years is to peacefully manage China’s rise. Given the salience and sensitivity surrounding the issue of Taiwan, if the two countries cannot find a modus operandi for engaging in strategic dialogue, then the relationship may prove exceedingly difficult to manage.
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