One China, Many Trumps?

Donald Trump in Aston, Pennsylvania. Flickr/Creative Commons/Michael Vadon

Panic, hope, fear and anger are all premature when it comes to Trump’s policy on Taiwan and China.

Although the Global Times argues that “one China” has been the cornerstone of stability and prosperity in China, I would argue that the ambiguity that lies at its core—the acknowledging of Beijing’s view—is what has achieved this by providing enough flexibility and face-saving for all sides. Whether Trump meant the complete abandonment of “one China” or a reminder, as I suspect, that the United States alone gets to determine its “one China” policy, remains to be seen and will become more apparent once Trump has entered the White House.

But one thing is certain: the likelihood that the United States will scuttle “one China” is next to nil, as such a policy goes against even what the more creative (and pro-Taiwan) of Trump’s advisers on Taiwan and China, people like John Bolton, have argued over the years. In Bolton’s case, his argument has been that dual recognition might be possible, albeit under a “one China” framework. The logic behind this is that there is nothing in the United States’ “one China” policy that prevents dual recognition. (Whether such an argument would be palatable to Beijing or Taipei is a different question altogether.)

One the opposite side, Trump’s remarks to the effect that he could use Taiwan as a bargaining chip over “a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade” have also sparked alarm in Taiwan, which as a smaller ally facing a revisionist power is incessantly wary of abandonment by the stronger security guarantor. Here, the same rule applies: Taipei should pay close attention to whom Trump appoints into his administration, and wait to see what actual policies are implemented once he has become part of the system, while reaching out to potential persons of influence to reinforce the message that Taiwan isn’t a means to an end and that it is an essential partner of the United States in the Asia-Pacific. Meanwhile, the Chinese side will equally do its utmost to convince incoming U.S. officials otherwise. By doing so, Trump may be forcing both sides to show their cards before he even enters office—not a bad position from which to negotiate.

Panic, hope, fear and anger are all premature emotions at this point, as are all attempts to prove linkage between “the call” and subsequent Chinese activities, including military maneuvers around Taiwan. For the most part, officials in Taipei and (rhetoric aside) Beijing have reacted to the many Trump iterations with poise and restraint, aware that rashness is likely to be counterproductive. They should be encouraged to continue in that direction. And if history is any indication, we can expect similar behavior from Trump and his close aides from January 20, when the forty-fifth president of the United States leaves Trump Tower and is finally confronted to the reality of governing a country.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Non Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, UK, and a Research Associate at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China. He is the author of Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait, published by Routledge in September 2016.

Image: Donald Trump in Aston, Pennsylvania. Flickr/Creative Commons/Michael Vadon