By Dr. Sriparna Pathak
The relationship between the world’s two strongest economies – the US and China – has not been free of tensions. What is being witnessed currently is a series of spats between the two nations: From China’s seizure of a US underwater drone and the outright lambasting of Chinese actions by President-elect Donald Trump to China’s state media calling for a takeover of Taiwan ‘by force’, in the event of an affront to the One China policy.
The starting point of these fresh tensions was a phone conversation between President-elect Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on 3rd December 2016. The 10-minute conversation has led to some analysts anticipating that it could signal the beginning of a more robust posture in Asia by Trump’s administration. The problem was exacerbated when Trump questioned the entire One China policy and suggested, at some point, that the One China agreement could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations on other issues such as trade. The White House, however, has clarified and insisted that the One China policy cannot be used as a ‘bargaining chip’.
A quick look at Trump’s long campaign and his references to China in his speeches reveal something significant: Sino-American relations are only going to be more troubled from now onward. In August 2015, he referenced China six times through one evening, arguing that China was always winning at America’s expense. In May 2016, he ratcheted up his rhetoric against Chinese trade policy, asserting “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country”. He also called the US “the piggy bank that’s being robbed” as a result of its trade deficit with China. On 28 June 2016, Trump vowed to slash international trade deals and begin an unrelenting offensive against Chinese economic practices. He also promised to label China a currency manipulator and to inflict punitive tariffs on Chinese goods. At almost every campaign rally, Mr. Trump has portrayed trade deals with China as unfair to the American worker.
In July 2016, speaking during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump declared he would stop China’s “outrageous theft of intellectual property”, “illegal dumping” and “devastating currency manipulation,” adding, for emphasis, “they are the greatest that ever came about, they are the greatest currency manipulators ever!“
Donald Trump’s victory was on the basis of his promises to make America great again. This would entail job creation, enhancing manufacturing-efficacy and increasing production: all of which have direct links with the revaluation of the Yuan. A ‘great’ America with more hegemonic powers will definitely not be something acceptable to a contending China. It can be argued, therefore, that Trump’s approach towards the One China policy is to keep China focused on Taiwan. As Professor Srikanth Kondapalli (Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University) argued, China has had to focus more energy on Taiwan after the election of Tsai Ing-wen (leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party) than during Ma Ying-jeou’s time.
He added that by redefining the One China policy, the attempt is to confine China to Taiwan while leaving the global arena free for the U.S.
After the elections and more specifically, after President Tsai Ing-wen formally assumed office in May 2016, Beijing suspended political ties with Taiwan until President Tsai recognises the ‘one-China principle’. President Tsai cannot do that for reasons of politics and conviction. Calls for a reverse of the One China policy and the Trump-Tsai conversation risk increased pressure from Beijing on a recalcitrant Taiwan in damaging ways. China rarely ignores what it perceives as a potential alteration in US policy toward Taiwan. A quick look at their conduct in 1995, when they undertook ballistic military exercises that threatened Taiwan in the wake of an unprecedented American invitation to the then-Taiwanese president to speak at Cornell University illustrates the Chinese outlook.
Centre stage: The One China policy
For China, it is impossible to think of a more pertinent issue in its relations with other countries than the One China policy. Beijing believes Taiwan is part of its own territory – and insists that all its diplomatic partners publicly share this view. Former US President Jimmy Carter had to sever official ties with Taiwan before he could open an embassy in Beijing in 1979. The policy has been the bedrock of Sino-American relations ever since. However, Trump – a newcomer to politics – is neither bound by the agreements of 1972, 1979 or 1988 nor does he feel bound by promises made by Democrats – as he is clearly displaying.
Any change in the US approach to the One China policy opens up scope for other nations to do the same. This is something which will, of course, be opposed tooth and nail by China. However, in a bid to keep other nations from following the American example (in the event that it actually changes its stance), the world might witness a moderation of Chinese aggression to the extent of even greater concessions on thorny issues which affect its relations with the countries it is in dispute with.
While Taiwan alone may be adversely affected by changes in the One China policy, several advantages may also emerge. This issue is definitely one that the world and neighbouring nations like India and Japan have to watch out for.