Trump’s Taiwan call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for ten minutes, “a product of months of quiet preparations,” wasn’t a blunder but bluster towards China, letting the Chinese know he’s planning to tow a stern line with them.
Presently, the behemoth People’s Republic of China (PRC) or ‘Mainland’ China will deny any and all countries from maintaining diplomatic relations with them and the Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan. To recognize Taiwan as a sovereign entity is to deny your country the bountiful relations, economic trade with, and industrial potency of China. Many countries don’t want to lose out on that trade.
For decades, Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats regularly traversed the world fighting for diplomatic recognition, while China used its UNSC seat and veto as diplomatic pressure against countries that recognized Taiwan. Today, the fight is over, and Taiwan lost. South Africa, the last major country to recognize Taiwan, switched over to China in 1998. Taiwan lost Gambia, the smallest nation in continental Africa, in March 2016 thanks to the Chinese influence of roads, rails, ports, airports and ‘soft power’. Taiwan now only has 22 states recognizing it, the most important of which are the Vatican and Nicaragua.
So when Trump spoke to Tsai, he upset the unspoken status quo and flipped over the chessboard. When he followed this rhetoric up through maintaining his remarks about overtures towards Taiwan, with the Wall Street Journal, he presented himself as a serious threat to China’s Communist Party’s image as the great ‘unifier’. Why did he do this? Simply: to rile the Chinese and their ideas of a “One China Policy”.
However, this intentional breakaway from ignoring Taiwan by a US President isn’t as troubling as you would think. Yes, Chinese officials may be livid, but let’s look at the status quo; the US doesn’t recognize Taiwan. It does still trade with Taiwan and sells weapons to Taiwan due to 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, but this was needed to end US recognition of Taiwan by making it responsible for Taiwan’s safeguarding from military conflict initiated by China.
Living up to this promise, in 1996, President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait after China tested missiles in nearby waters. When Beijing last tested a US president – President George W. Bush – he approved a US$30 billion arms package for Taiwan, announced that Taiwan would be treated as a major non-NATO ally, declaring that the US would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan. Beijing’s actions only strengthened US – Taiwanese ties and forced Beijing to employ good relations throughout his presidency. However, times are changing. Power dynamics are changing. On-the-ground world realities are changing.
Sure, Trump may want to antagonize China through Taiwan in the short-term. He could do this in varying ways:
Economically, Trump could negotiate a new free-trade agreement with Taiwan, its ninth-largest trading partner. A free-trade agreement would be economically beneficial to both sides, and set a marker that despite Trump’s planned withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the US isn’t withdrawing from Asia.
Militarily, Trump could begin sending general officers to Taipei once again to coordinate with their Taiwanese counterparts and hold joint military exercises.
Diplomatically, the US could begin receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department, upgrade the status of US representation in Taipei to an official diplomatic mission, and even ultimately restore full diplomatic recognition.
Ultimately though, Beijing need only respond with time and economics. Slowly but surely, as the ASEAN countries further integrate into a Chinese led Asia, and Chinese soft power continues to ascend, Taiwanese diplomatic isolation will further set in. China needs to solely use diplomacy and pragmatism. Looking at economic realities, if China can keep itself steady, ride out waves of turbulence and challenges, Taiwan will consider a looser two system structure akin to Hong Kong in 20 or 30 years. The economic reshaping of Asia, with China as the tributary receiver and leader cannot be ignored, and neither can the benefits for an isolated Taiwan.
Beijing desires to fully integrate and reconnect with Taiwan, governing it from Beijing, seeing Taiwan as a renegade province but still a part of China. The PRC regained Hong Kong from the British and Macau from the Portuguese, so Taiwan is the final area to regain from a Chinese perspective. China’s use of the “one country, two systems” with Hong Kong, preserving Hong Kong’s economic and social systems, its independent executive, legislative and judiciary powers for 50 years from the date of the handover is exactly the policy China should take towards Taiwan.
It can’t be denied that Taiwan has its own democratically elected government, institutions, its own domestic, foreign and trade policies with zero input from Beijing, its own passports and so on. It has to be given a special status by the Chinese, and if they do that, like Hong Kong, a confidence building reunification may occur.
As the US already arms Taiwan, any increased arming under Trump doesn’t matter. The promoting of relations however will encourage a hot confrontation, not a cold one. This is a red line for China. The proximity of Taiwan to China gifts Chinese authorities a plethora of advantages if ever they decide to forcefully regain control of Taiwan; but they don’t need to, they just need time.
Like I said previously, China has won diplomatically, Taiwan has lost. The US doesn’t have the capacity or influence to change the stance of ASEAN countries or the international community to cross China’s red line of coming between China and Taiwan. China’s mounting influence in Europe, its economic benefits, infrastructure based foreign policy in Africa and Asia grant it an array of soft power.
Likewise, China is indispensable for the US in keeping nuclear-armed North Korea boxed in. Any emboldened moves by Trump to pry Taiwan away from the status quo between China and the US would be countered by Chinese UNSC vetoes of reintroducing sanctions against Iran. China could also try persuading East Asian countries into cooling their relations with the US into pioneering new lows, now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead, and encourage a closer gravitation to China. These are headaches the US doesn’t want.
China just has to wait. It doesn’t need to ever seek Taiwan through force. Soft power, economics, and some compromising negotiations leading to an SAR like Hong Kong would bring Taiwan back to China, and away from all that American weaponry.
Trump’s bluster isn’t buffoonery or brazen; it doesn’t matter what symbolism or actual Taiwanese focused policies Trump tries to use against China. In this region the US is outmatched and has been outfoxed. And they will continue to be as the US recedes.