Government and governance, International relations | East Asia, The World, Asia

9 January 2017

While Trump’s actions and statements may have poured fuel on the fire, the underlying tensions in the relationship between the US, China and Taiwan have been building for some time, Daniel Fazio writes.

Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his questioning of the ‘One China’ policy have exposed the tensions, contradictions and uncertainties in US-China-Taiwan relations. Portrayals of Trump as a buffoon and foreign policy novice ignore his conscious aggravation of Beijing. Trump breaking over four decades of US-Chinese diplomatic protocol is symptomatic of the real issue: the US-Chinese regional power play.

Trump has highlighted tensions and contradictions in US-China-Taiwan relations that have festered since the victory of Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949. At the end of the Chinese civil war, the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party regime retreated to Taiwan (also then known as Formosa), but it seemed inevitable that the island would fall to the Communists. However, when the Korean War broke out in June 1950, President Truman deployed the US 7th Fleet to the Taiwan (Formosa) Strait, thereby denying the Communists the island. The US refused to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as legitimate, and the Nationalist Party regime occupied China’s UN seat.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles threatened to ‘unleash’ Chiang against the Chinese mainland and a series of ‘island crises’ escalated US-PRC tensions before wiser counsels prevailed.

President Nixon accepted the PRC’s claim to China’s UN seat in 1971 and recognised the PRC in 1972. President Carter opened diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, relegating US-Taiwan links to unofficial status. The ‘One China’ policy, according to which China is governed by Beijing and includes Taiwan, has underpinned US-Chinese relations ever since.

Yet, the contradictions and tensions in US-China-Taiwan relations have surfaced periodically over the past four decades, and Trump may indeed try to reorient the US’ China policy. The US has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but has strong economic and military ties that effectively guarantee Taiwan’s security.

The four-decade-long US-China-Taiwan accommodation has served the three nations’ interests. The US benefits from official diplomatic and economic relations with the PRC and unofficial defence and economic relations with Taiwan. China benefits from formal diplomatic ties with the US and enjoys economic relations with America and Taiwan. Taiwan’s defence ties with the US ensure its security and it benefits from economic links to China.

Taiwanese leaders espousing closer ties to China or greater independence do so knowing Taiwan’s security is guaranteed by the US. Beijing’s interests are also served by US leverage in Taiwan, which restrains the regime from provocative acts like declaring greater independence from China. The PRC has accepted this diplomatic accommodation in exchange for the absence of official US-Taiwanese relations and US adherence to the ‘One China’ policy.

The Trump-Tsai phone call may signal that Taiwan sees an opportunity to breach the US’ official China policy under Trump. Taiwan’s interests would be served by closer and more open relations with the US. Tsai’s phone call could indicate Taiwan is trying to position itself to safeguard its security and economic interests in an uncertain geostrategic environment. Indeed, Taiwan is an important ally in America’s effort to counter Chinese belligerence.

Taiwan’s security depends on a strong US regional presence and Tsai’s phone call may have served to ‘remind’ the US that Chinese strategic designs are not in the US’ interests and to ‘remind’ China of US-Taiwanese defence ties. The ‘certainty’ that underpinned more than four decades of the US-China-Taiwan accommodation is now in flux.

While Beijing is concerned about Trump’s intentions in regards to US-PRC relations and American engagement in Asia, it also sees an opportunity to expand and strengthen its geostrategic reach.

The strategic power balance between the US and PRC has altered considerably since Nixon’s recognition of China when the US was the dominant power. China is now a strategic competitor asserting itself in the region. China’s escalating militarisation of the artificial islands and seizure of the US underwater drone in the South China Sea demonstrate its regional assertiveness. This power play has heightened the uncertainty about America’s strategy in Asia and apprehension over Trump’s presidency.

Trump’s phone call with Tsai and his claim to not be bound to the ‘one China’ policy, expose tensions in US-PRC-Taiwan relations that have existed since 1949. Trump has raised the central contradiction in US-China policy. America has no official relations with Taiwan and espouses the ‘One China’ policy while guaranteeing Taiwan’s security and enjoying a lucrative economic and defence relationship with the island. Trump argues that China engages in strategic and economic behaviour detrimental to US interests whereas Taiwan is an ally deserving of American support.

That the tensions and contradictions in US-China-Taiwan relations are manifesting themselves more strongly, only partially reflects Trump’s conduct. More importantly, the changing US-PRC strategic and economic relationship is accentuating the historical tensions and contradictions in the US-China-Taiwan accommodation and managing these will be one of Trump’s many foreign policy challenges.

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Fazio, Daniel. 2017. "Trump And A Tricky Relationship - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.