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Is Trump’s Taiwan gambit dangerous?

Xuan Loc Doan December 21, 2016 10:09 PM (UTC+8)
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During his presidential campaign and especially since his election victory, Donald Trump has made several impulsive comments that have perplexed many people, including both America’s friends and foes.

His recent remarks on the so-called “One China” policy are a prime example.

In an interview broadcast on Fox News on December 11, the business tycoon turned politician, who prides himself on being a dealmaker, questioned why the US has “to be bound by a One China policy” unless it makes “a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

Inflaming Beijing and alarming Taipei

His suggestion has enraged (the People’s Republic of) China as he touched what Beijing sees as untouchable.

The policy, which dates back to the early 1970s, is the American recognition of the Chinese position that there is but one China and that Taiwan, also formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), is a part of China.

For the communist-ruled PRC, the island is a renegade province that must one day be reunified with it. For this reason, it is no surprise that its officials, media and commentariat have reacted angrily and intimidatingly to Trump’s comments.

In an opinion piece on December 12, the Global Times, an offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, threatened that if Trump abandoned the policy and publicly supported Taiwan independence, China, among other measures, “could offer support, even military assistance to US foes” and “may not prioritize peaceful reunification over a military takeover.”

In another editorial piece two days later, the newspaper, internationally known as China’s most belligerent tabloid, even urged “the Chinese mainland to reformulate its Taiwan policy, make the use of force as a main option and carefully prepare for it.”

The key reason why Trump’s remarks have enraged China is his view that the One China policy – or precisely America’s stance on China – is open for negotiation.

In its December 12 piece, the Global Times said the US President-elect “is naïve to think he can use the One China policy as a bargaining chip to win economic benefits from China,” adding that he “doesn’t understand how dangerous it can be when he involves the US in such an explosive game.”

On December 14, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US reportedly said Beijing would never bargain with Washington over issues involving its “national sovereignty and territorial integrity” because they “are not bargaining chips.”

Though he did not explicitly mention Trump’s comments on the One China policy nor Taiwan, Cui Tiankai implied that Taiwan, which Beijing regards as “part of the sacred territory” of the PRC, cannot be traded.

It can be argued such is also the position of Taiwan – but for completely different reasons.

Though it has remained silent, Taipei must be alarmed by Trump’s One China policy remarks. In fact, some of its supporters have already voiced their concerns over his suggestion of using the self-governing island as leverage to extract compromises from China on trade and other issues.

During a press briefing on December 12, the White House press secretary Josh Earnest said one reason that the Obama administration, like the previous ones, has pursued the policy is because it “does not view Taiwan and our relationship with Taiwan as a bargaining chip. Taiwan is not a source of leverage.”

He also specified that the island is America’s “close partner” and its “ninth largest trading partner.”

In an open letter to Donald Trump on the One-China policy, Richard C. Bush, a former senior officer at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), America’s quasi embassy in the island, is even more specific and critical, stating that “Taiwan is not a ‘tradeable good.’”

Bush, who worked at the AIT from 1997 to 2002, pointed out that Taiwan “is an island composed of 23 million people who have created a prosperous, stable, and democratic society – a society, by the way, that China might emulate. They are good friends of the United States. They don’t deserve to be treated as a bargaining chip.”

A dangerous move

Indeed, people may have different views of the One China policy but hardly deny that the self-ruling island has significantly advanced, especially during the last two decades. It has now led many countries, including China, in many aspects.

With a GDP (nominal) of about US$519 billion (according to the International Monetary Fund’s estimates), it is the world’s 22nd largest economy in 2016 – ranking behind just six regional major economies, namely China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and Indonesia.

People in the island enjoy higher living standards than most of their regional peers, including mainlanders. Taiwan’s GDP per capita is US$ 22,300 whereas that of China is merely US$ 8,100.

In particular, since holding democratic elections in 1996, it has transformed into a mature democracy, with a robust civil society and healthy, free, independent media. Taiwan now stands in sharp contrast to the repressive ROC in the 1970s – when the One China policy came into being – and the PRC as well as many other regional authoritarian countries.

Taiwan ranked 31st in the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Democracy Index. In contrast, Thailand ranked 98th, Cambodia 113th, Myanmar 114th, Vietnam 128th and China 136th (out of 167 countries/territories).

This is not surprising that in an address to the People of Laos three months ago, President Barack Obama highlighted Taiwan as an example of a flourishing Asian democracy. Earlier, in 2007, his predecessor, George Bush already praised Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, citing it as an example for the world to follow.

In its 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked the island at 51 while placing the PRC almost at the bottom of the table, at 176 (out of 180). It is also placed far higher than China and many other regional countries in other international rankings, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Freedom House’s Freedom Index or Heritage’s Economic Freedom Index.

All of these indicators show Taiwan has achieved remarkable successes – both economically and politically. With such achievements, it should be lauded, rather than traded. For that reason, as Richard C. Bush rightly said in his open letter, using it as a leverage point “would be immoral”.

It is all the more so when taking into account the fact that as part of its One China policy, and over years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the US has committed to supporting and defending the island.

In his “The Art Of The Deal” published in 1987, Donald Trump wrote: “The best thing you can do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have. Leverage is having something the other guy wants. Or better yet, needs. Or best of all, simply can’t deal without.”

That may be true in corporate business. But international diplomacy and relations are completely different domains, where not everything can be bargained and traded.

His attitude will make many American partners and allies suspicious. If he is willing to treat Taiwan as a leverage point, it is not completely ruled out that he will use other key issues, e.g. the South China Sea, and US ties with other regional countries, as bargaining chips if that fits with his “America First” policy.

Such a raw realpolitik approach is dangerous as it will lead to instability, conflict and even war. It can also be said that any unilateral attempt by any party involved to change Taiwan’s status quo for its own interest will likely bring about the same negative consequences.

Status quo as the best option

As acknowledged by President Obama in his year-end press conference last week, “although not completely satisfactory to any of the parties involved,” at the present context, persevering the status quo is the best solution.

Given China’s lack of political reforms, America’s concerns over its huge trade deficit with China (about US$366 billion in 2015) and the latter’s stance on number of key economic and international issues, some in the US, such as Trump and other Republicans, are not happy with their country’s One China policy and, consequently, want to review it.

In effect, such a posture is not new. In an interview with the New York Times shortly before he died, President Richard Nixon, the leading architect of America’s One China policy, suggested that perhaps in its support of China over Taiwan, the US was creating a “Frankenstein” – i.e. making a policy that has harmed America.

However, like it or not, Washington’s One China policy has become a fundamental tenet in its relations with Beijing for decades and any radical change – for instance, its support for or recognition of Taiwan’s independence – would badly affect its ties with the world’s second biggest economy. It is likely that China would take tough measures against the US should the latter abandon the policy because, as underlined by President Obama, “one China is at the heart of [the PRC] as a nation.”

Taiwan, especially under the current leadership of Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), may want greater international recognition. From Taipei’s perspective, the One China policy has isolated the island, preventing it from joining important international and regional fora and agreements.

Nevertheless, Taiwan would lose more than gain by overtly seeking greater international recognition or advocating independence. Of the three parties involved, Taiwan arguably benefits most from the status quo.

Though not being formally recognized by (all) the international community, it already exists and functions as a sovereign state, which has its own judicial, legislative and executive bodies. It enjoys stronger ties with the US than many regional countries. The self-ruling island has brought more than US$46 billion in weapons from the US since 1990. That the US sells Taipei defensive arms illustrates Taiwan is de facto an independent state as such a dealing only takes place between states, not a state and a state subdivision, e.g. a province.

As long as Taipei manages to maintain the status quo, it can keep its autonomy, further its economic and political development and Beijing has no justified reason to attack and invade it.

Because it sees Taiwan as an inalienable part of its national territory, the PRC undoubtedly wants the island to be reunified with it. As evidenced by the successful reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, a reunification of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is possible, if not desirable. However, that process should be mutual, willing and peaceful.

Given the current political reality in China, the prospect of the island’s unification with the mainland remain distant because it is very unlikely that both the US and Taiwan will favor such a move unless there are major political changes in Beijing.

While it is understandable that China has publicly expressed its concerns and anger over Trump’s phone conversation with the Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen on December 2 and his remarks on the One China policy, it is perhaps advisable that privately the communist leadership in Beijing, its officials, media and commentariat should ask themselves why most people in the island – up to 80% according to a poll – have increasingly identified themselves as Taiwanese.

Moreover, instead of bullying or threatening the island and its leadership, they should wonder why the DPP, which is independence-leaning, overwhelmingly won local elections in 2014 and presidential and legislative elections early this year.

Xuan Loc Doan
Xuan Loc Doan is a UK-based researcher. He holds a PhD in International Relations and researches and writes on a number of areas. These include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN, EU, UK’s politics and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.
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