By Jiao Kun
Donald Trump’s inauguration is still one month away, yet the US president-elect’s recent actions and speeches on one subject have already triggered great concern and feeling of uncertainty both inside and outside his country.
During an interview with Fox News last Sunday, Trump said “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one-China policy.” This shocking comment came just days after Trump had accepted a telephone call from the leader of Taiwan, a choice no US president or president-elect has made in the past several decades.
Speaking with Taiwan’s leader on the phone has already been seen by many as a signal that Trump will get even tougher than his predecessors on China. The latest comment seems to be strengthening this impression.
However, Trump put an “unless” right after the sentence quoted above: “unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” This clause is interpreted by most commentators as revealing Trump’s nature as a businessman: he’s trying to use the one-China policy as a bargaining chip to get some deals from China.
It is right in a sense to criticize Trump as having zero experience in diplomacy. Playing the Taiwan card does show that Trump is still a novice in handling foreign policy: for China, the Taiwan question is not something that can be traded. But trying to leverage the one-China policy also shows that Trump has developed, or is developing an approach to a new type of Sino-US relationship that will be quite different from the existing one.
If Trump’s goal is being tough on China, he has a full range of policy responses to draw on that have been developed by the current and former US governments. For decades, US politicians have been pointing fingers at China on ideological issues, with military pressure accompanying their accusations. The latest case of implementing this strategy is the Obama administration’s “rebalance” policy, which aims at coordinating the US and its east and Southeast Asian allies to put greater pressure on China. Trump could totally inherit such an ideological and military approach, or even intensify it.
Until now, however, Trump has shown little interest in doing so. It seems that ideologically accusing and militarily containing China is not Trump’s choice in light of his “America first” principle. As the “unless” clause implied, his biggest goal is to draw out deals from China that will benefit his country economically.
Trump’s recent trip to Iowa is proof of this argument. At a thank-you rally there, Trump announced his decision to pick Iowa governor Terry Branstad as his ambassador to China, whom Beijing considers “an old friend.” Branstad has a good relationship with Chinese leaders and has been successful in exporting agricultural products from his state to China. He has exactly what Trump needs: the skill to bring back favorable trade deals from China to the US.
At that rally, after blaming China for benefiting more in its trade with the US, along with the North Korea issue, Trump said “other than that, they’ve been wonderful.” This compliment may also be meant to cost China something, but it at the same time shows that Trump is departing from the old-fashioned way of his country to deal with China, into which considerations from the ideological and military angles were heavily interwoven.
About one month ago, James Woolsey, Trump’s senior advisor on national security, defense and intelligence, published an article titled “Under Donald Trump, the US will accept China’s rise – as long as it doesn’t challenge the status quo.” Although still holding on to the traditional role of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, Woolsey has toned down a lot. In this article, he admitted that “our ideological differences should also be better managed.” Furthermore, Woolsey expressed support for China to have a bigger role in regional and international affairs. The advice regarding economic cooperation that may draw Trump’s attention the most is this one: “It is widely accepted in Washington today that the Obama administration’s opposition to the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was a strategic mistake and I hope that the next administration’s response to the Belt and Road initiative will be much warmer.”
It appears that Trump is now contemplating his China policy along the line drawn by Woolsey. It is very possible that he feels now in need of some new leverage as the old way of accusing and threatening will no longer be his choice – maybe that’s why he blindly tried his luck at pulling at the one-China policy thread. Now he needs someone to tell him that this move is leading him on a path to nowhere, and that he should focus on considering about how to economically benefit from partners by benefiting them.
(The author is a lecturer at the School of History, Wuhan University. firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pulling the one-China thread will lead Trump nowhere
By Jiao Kun