The Buzz

Walking Away from One-China Policy Imperils Taiwan

China has long held that Taiwan is the most sensitive issue in the U.S.-China relationship, but in recent years, Taiwan has been overshadowed by tensions over maritime disputes and China’s building and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea. Since the Dec. 2 phone call between President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, however, Taiwan is once again rising to the top of the agenda in U.S.-China relations. In recent days, China has stepped up its warnings over Trump’s approach to Taiwan, particularly his Fox News comments on Dec. 11 suggesting that Washington’s long-standing “One-China” policy could be abandoned unless Beijing is willing to treat it as part of a broader deal that includes other issues such as trade.

Chinese government officials and official media outlets have warned that the One-China policy is non-negotiable. They have emphasized that Beijing sees it as the political foundation of the U.S.-China relationship and a prerequisite for cooperation on issues of common concern. China’s official response has also underscored Taiwan’s status as a “core interest”—a formulation that reflects its importance not only strategically but also in terms of Chinese nationalism and domestic politics. Beijing has also highlighted that it sees the One-China policy as fundamental to the maintenance of a peaceful and stable cross-Strait relationship. These statements, along with the appearance in official media of phrases China historically uses as warnings, such as an admonishment in China’s official military newspaper that any violation of “One-China” is nothing short of “playing with fire,” highlight China’s determination to protect its bottom line—including by use of force if necessary.

China has a number of options to express its displeasure to the incoming administration. For example, Beijing could withdraw its ambassador from the United States as it did to protest then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States in 1995. China could curtail cooperation with Washington on other issues, such as North Korea or Iran. Beijing could become more aggressive against U.S. assets in the South China Sea, which it may already have done with its seizure on Dec. 15 of an unmanned undersea glider the U.S. Navy was operating about 50 nautical miles off of the Philippines. If Beijing sees the new administration’s approach as sufficiently provocative, it could even break off diplomatic relations, as at least one Chinese scholar has suggested.