BY ANASTASIA CHOO
Donald Trump’s win on 8th November, based on a campaign of fiery and blistering rhetoric often singling out China, sent shock waves around the globe. Mainstream media observed closely as world leaders raced to make that all-important phone call to congratulate the unpredictable political virgin. Some calls were fulsome and some tentatively made but none caused as much furore as the phone call between Tsai Ing-Wen, the Democratic Progressive Taiwanese President, and Trump. Tsai congratulated Trump with the following:
“The US is the most important democracy in the world as well as Taiwan’s most solid partner. We are looking forward to working with Trump’s administration in deepening the US-Taiwan relationship and turning Taipei into a key foundation for maintaining peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region.”
Tsai expressed confidence in future US-Taiwan relations based around shared values such as freedom, democracy, and human rights. Seemingly innocent congratulatory words from one democratic President to another…if the triangular dynamics between the US, China and Taiwan were not so sensitive. By speaking directly with the Taiwanese leader and referring to Tsai as the President of Taiwan, Trump abandoned the decades-long diplomatic tradition of not recognising Taiwan as a sovereign nation. Trump’s acceptance of the phone call had serious ramifications stemming from a long-standing struggle over Taiwanese identity and sovereignty.
China made its displeasure clear by lodging a formal complaint with the United States, according to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang:
“The world has only one China, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing China.”
The Global Times, an official Chinese newspaper accused Trump of being ‘as ignorant as a child’ and suggested his ‘inexperience’ led him to accept the phone call and warned any breach of the One China stance would ‘destroy’ relations with America.
Is Trump ignorant of the One-China Policy established in 1972 via the Shanghai Communique by Nixon, or is he deliberately sending a message that he prefers to do business with a free China not a communist China? To grasp the furore surrounding Trump’s acceptance of the phone call from Tsai, it’s key to understand the background to the Sino-US relations on the issue of Taiwan.
Rewind to 1945: the Kuomintang Nationalist Party governed China, known then as the Republic of China (ROC.) By 1949 Mao and the Communists forced the nationalists to flee China for Taiwan during the civil war. Both Taiwan and China believed itself to be the legitimate government of One China. During the Cold War years of the 1970s however, China had gained enough international support for the UN General Assembly to pass the resolution declaring that it, and not Taiwan, was the rightful representative of ‘China.’ The resolution specified that it was a ‘restoration of the lawful rights’ to China, indicating that the country had been denied its rightful seat since 1949.
The United States, the most significant opponent of the resolution, then argued for Taiwan to be admitted separately from China which would have allowed Taiwan to retain its spot at the UN. The proposal was defeated. China objected to the United States having diplomatic relations with both China and Taiwan, because it would mean that the United States believed there were “two Chinas,” and not just One China.
The US acquiesced as Nixon needed China on side to alter the balance of power against Russia and official diplomatic ties were severed between Taiwan and the US in 1979. However, the US countered China’s threat of using force against Taiwan in passing the Taiwan Relations Act. This Act sought to grant Taiwan the same privileges as a sovereign nation, though it was no longer recognized as one and it promised to make available ‘such defence articles and defence services as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capability.’ This has meant that billions of dollars of arms have been sold to Taiwan by the US over the years.
China views Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification and any US move implying support for independence highly offends Beijing. China is particularly sensitive to the current Taiwanese leader’s Democratic Progressive Party which does not recognise the 1992 Consensus on One China. Instead the DPP believes in One China and One Taiwan and the people of Taiwan have the right to self-determination without outside coercion.
It has been the sacred mission of every Communist leader since Mao to Xi Jinping to unify China and Taiwan. China has threatened to use force in the past and more recently suggested a “One Country Two Systems” approach. But its autocratic style of governing and its erosion of democracy in Hong Kong has left Taiwan with very little appetite to unify with the mainland when it has established democratisation. The idea of a “One China” today commands virtually no support in Taiwan, which prizes its fledgling democracy.
Fast forward to 2016 and Trump responds to China the way he knows best, via Twitter:
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Chinese subsequently seized a United States underwater drone in the South China Sea last Friday. Beijing has so far proved rather more predictable than the president-elect of the US: careful official statements of displeasure, sabre-rattling in a populist state-owned tabloid and a series of actions which could be coincidental but send a convenient message. These include the first live-fire exercises by China’s aircraft carrier group, the warning that a US carmaker could face fines for monopolistic behaviour and the scooping up of the oceanographic survey ship’s drone.
Just this Saturday morning, Trump tweeted:
China has increased both its military size and budget to become the second largest military power in the world. However, it is not quite the superpower that it would have you believe, lagging the US in technology. Mainstream media reports of impending war are woefully exaggerated as ultimately, China for all its antics with the drone and lodging of a formal complaint against the US, has ambitions to continue its ascent as a global economic powerhouse.
The only war that may ensue is a Trade War, thus China has refrained from using stronger dialogue against the US. Instead, like all bullies in the playground, it has directed its ire against newcomer Tsai, who is running a thriving democracy in Taiwan, and accused her of playing silly little tricks.
China is worried that if Trump recognises Taiwan as a sovereign state, other countries will follow. So, it does what it knows best – strangles Taiwan economically by restricting Chinese investment and limits the number of mainland tourists into Taiwan.
The Global Times threatens that China should take Taiwan by force and mainstream media reports of potential war in south east Asia – that’s just sabre rattling.
Is this not a genuine case for the twenty-two countries that still recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state and the rest of the world to finally be more vocal in supporting democracy in Taiwan instead of pandering to communist China?
It remains to be seen how Trump, the unpredictable political virgin that he is, will steer the Sino-US relationship. His fiery campaign rhetoric suggests that business will not be as usual on issues such as trade with China. His tweets certainly highlight the hypocrisy of “careful diplomacy” and indicates that he will not kow tow to China as many leaders have done in their pursuit of Chinese trade and investment. Whether he is ignorant or learning on the job, I for one applaud him for challenging the festering status quo.