The current state of Sino-U.S relations is in flux and with it are the old norms which used to govern the relationship between the two great powers. Since his nomination, President-elect Trump has taken a strong stance against perceived threats to U.S. job security and economic prosperity by Chinese actors. Alongside a possible 10% import tariff on Chinese products, Mr. Trump has gone as far as to appoint staunch anti-Chinese persons into positions of power such as the long time China hawk Peter Navarro to head the new National Trade Council. While his tough talk may be perceived negatively in Beijing, neither taxation nor political appointments are seen as being “deal breakers” for the CCP to maintain diplomatic ties with the United States. More worrying, perhaps, may be the fact that those issues that the CCP has signaled in the past—such as reestablishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan—could trigger a de-normalization of relations.
The most troubling development to arise from the President-elect’s actions is the complete and utter disregard for the Mandatory Guidance from the Department of State Regarding Contact with Taiwan and the spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act, which was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on April 10, 1979. The law, which affords Taiwan statehood in all but name alone, has created a space in which the U.S and China can work together while still retaining prior American commitments to Taiwan. Deliberately or not, by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen on December 3rd (arranged by lobbyist and former senator Bob Dole), Mr. Trump has put in question U.S. adherence to the One-China policy, and jeopardized the stable relationship Washington and Beijing have cultivated for the past 39 years.
The new administration’s aim in drawing these new hard lines against the Chinese is to test how hard (and where) they can push their counterparts in Beijing, but the ramifications of these tactics have manifested themselves tangibly. The seizure of the Slocum G2 Glider drone off the coast of the Philippines on December 16th, and the subsequent January 11th movement of the Liaoning (辽宁舰) Aircraft Carrier through the Strait of Taiwan, can be seen as a direct result of these actions. In regards to the first incident retired Chinese army general Yue Gang has been quoted as saying, “We were hitting back, militarily but indirectly, at President Elect Trump’s messing with the One-China principle” (Source).
While the American executive branch has begun to acquire significantly more power in the past 20 years, it does not have the power to reinstate formal relations with Taiwan. As outlined in TRA, this duty would fall in the hands of Congress, which makes the January 8th meeting between Tsai and Texas representative Ted Cruz even more unsettling. Vocal discontent over the meeting has appeared across Chinese social media, alongside heavy interpretation regarding the gift of a clock from Mr. Cruz to President Tsai, which in Chinese culture traditionally symbolizes the recipient’s death in the near future. In contrast, the uneventful nature and lack of high profile meetings on Tsai’s return visit through San Francisco January 18th indicate that as the inauguration grows closer the Trump administration has begun to notice where China has drawn its line.
Currently, only 22 nations recognize Taiwan as an independent state, primarily in Latin America. It is an official policy of the Chinese government to have neither trade nor diplomatic relations with those countries. The Trump administration may feel that the U.S.-China relationship is “Too Big to Fail,” and therefore miscalculates the non-negotiable nature of the One-China policy. The importance of the economic and strategic relationship between the two countries cannot be disregarded, however, and neither can the two identical statements issued by the Chinese government after the December 3rd call and January 9th meeting, which explicitly warn of the damage such a path would cause.
It is in the best interest of the United States to remain neutral on the issue of Taiwan so as to not endanger future engagement with China over issues like North Korea, climate change, and piracy. By overlooking these broader implications in order to flex U.S might, the nuanced, fragile, and interconnected reality of the Sino-American relationship is ignored. If America is to build off of President Carter’s legacy in the Asia-Pacific, we must learn to pick our battles wisely and place geopolitical security above shows of power.
Daniel Grober is one of the current interns at the Carter Center’s China Program. You can follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Grober.