The aftermath of the December 2 phone call between president-elect Trump and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen is rapidly building toward a confrontation between the US and China at the very outset of the Trump presidency. The fallout is likely to extend to the Korean peninsula, where cooperation with China—already complicated—is a pre-requisite for getting things done.
The problems initially stemmed from a lack of clarity with respect to the president-elect’s intentions. Two story lines have been in play, and both were on display in Trump's interview with Chris Wallace on Fox on Sunday: that this was nothing other than a short courtesy call (Conway, Pence and Trump himself); and that it was in fact a much more calculated move designed to generate some leverage vis-à-vis Beijing. The former explanation was getting harder and harder to sustain as information dribbled out about the lobbying behind the call, and the explicit challenge to the One China policy in Trump’s tweets and the Fox interview was bound to get Beijing’s attention and is worth quoting:
TRUMP: … I fully understand the One-China policy. But I don't know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.
I mean, look, we're being hurt very badly by China with devaluation, with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don't tax them, with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn't be doing.
And, frankly, they're not helping us at all with North Korea. You have North Korea, you have nuclear weapons, and China could solve that problem. And they're not helping us at all.
So, I don't want China dictating to me. And this was a call put into me. I didn't make the call. And it was a call, very short call, saying, "Congratulations, sir, on the victory." It was a very nice call. Short.
And why should some other nation be able to say, I can't take a call? I think it would have been very disrespectful, to be honest with you, not taking it.
Nor was this exchange operating in a vacuum. Of particular note are two interviews by John Bolton that provide a highly condensed and pithy justification for “shaking up the relationship” (here on December 3 and here on December 6): that China is not cooperating on North Korea and is stirring up trouble in the South China Sea. But most striking were his comments on “upgrading the relationship” with Taiwan and that Taiwan “meets all the customary law definitions of statehood.”
The response from Beijing—initially restrained—is clearly escalating. The restrained response to the Fox interview, in the remarks by the Foreign Ministry spokesman—simply states that “adherence to the one China principle serves as the political foundation for the development of China-US ties” and that no cooperation will be possible without it. But the Global Times screed is more important to read. Even if discounted appropriately it more closely reflects public opinion, which could come to play an unexpected role in the controversy if Xi is seen as responding too weakly. The article consists largely of a string of threats: Beijing “could offer support, even military assistance to US foes,” would roll out new Taiwan policies, and “may not prioritize peaceful reunification over a military takeover.”
Nor are these threats empty, with two episodes of escorted Chinese H-6 bombers flying around the island (Taiwanese coverage here and here) and Taiwan’s defense establishment expecting naval follow-on (here). What is this administration—and the next—going to do about the militarization of the Strait in coming weeks?
And then there is the well-known moral hazard problem: that signs from the US will encourage the DPP to take risks. In general, it appears that Tsai herself has been cautious, for example downplaying the phone call and not responding to the Fox interview. But Taiwanese journalists call the Trump-Tsai call "川蔡熱線," which literally means "Trump-Tsai hotline." Predictably, at least one pan-Green legislator, Lo Chih-Cheng (羅致政), a former professor of political science with a PhD from UCLA—as well as commentaries in pan-Green newspapers—have suggested that Taiwan should openly abandon any commitment to the One China policy and seek out closer ties with Japan and the US. One idea making the rounds: if the TPP fails, negotiate a bilateral trade agreement of some sort.
As a democratic, market-oriented, and pro-American country, I sympathize over the way China has sought to isolate Taiwan. But the ambiguity in the One-China policy has allowed the US to maintain a reasonably robust relationship with Taipei—albeit with winks and nods—even extending to the sale of significant military hardware. And it has managed to keep the peace since the 1995-6 Strait crisis, which no one has an interest in replicating. The idea that poking at the three communiques will generate cooperation elsewhere seems like a gambit that is doomed to fail, and with Taiwan paying the cost.