Trump put Taiwan into play once again and put into action his “tough on China” position by taking a call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen. Then, Trump upped the ante and shook established US foreign policy on China: he openly questioned the “One-China Policy”:
“I fully understand the 'one China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
Keep in mind that Chinese leaders initially saw Donald Trump during the election as the lesser of two evils due to Trump's much more isolationist foreign policy. Trump even proposed concrete steps that questioned the cooperation of the US-allied buffer states of Japan and South Korea. In contrast, Hillary Clinton was regarded as an “old foreign policy hand” and an architect of the “pivot” towards Asia (China, really) in 2012. Clinton's wealth of military-related experience also positioned her as being much more prepared than Trump in addressing foreign policy concerns. Therefore, China's leaders certainly did not expect Trump to question the One-China Policy, which is regarded as an achievement by master diplomats on both sides. Yet when Trump did so, China responded by issuing harsh editorials and flying a single nuclear-capable bomber in the South China Sea to reinforce China's claims in that area.
Why is the One-China Policy so important to China today?
1. Because the People's Republic of China is politically still a relatively young state, having formed in 1949 after forcing the Nationalist government off the Mainland and into Taiwan. In the People's Republic of China's failure to complete the reunification of China in successfully invading Taiwan, and Taiwan's continued existence today as an independent, democratic state with a president more hostile to mainland China represents a stable alternative to China's more authoritarian government. (However, this threat is partially mitigated in that the industrial and economic modernization and advancement of China has undermined the position that democracy is necessary for development).
2. Because the Chinese leadership is faced with the task of governing a country with an enormous population (the US' population, approximately 311 million, is only 23.2% that of China's, at 1,340 million), and any social or political upheaval may lead to unrest, which can, and has caused, large-scale destruction of resources and infrastructure, as well as many deaths.
3. If China makes any concession based on the One-China Policy, such a concession represents a backwards step that severely weakens the political legitimacy of the Chinese government, which publicly refuses to recognize Taiwan's de facto separate government. Taiwan itself still maintains somewhat of an ambiguous claim over mainland China as well.
Yet the Chinese response has been very restraine, and China's meekness tell the following:
1. China is eager to maintain political legitimacy as an important domestic policy, and cannot simply stand by while Trump makes such a statement. Therefore, the bomber flight was necessary to show its guarded opposition.
2. China does not want a war with the US, because a war would destabilize its economic and political stability gained from good relations with the US.
3. The China of today is not the “Red China” that many Americans are still entrenched in believing. China's leadership is largely composed of technocrats and/or have a semi-hereditary claim to power, and whom value GDP growth and domestic stability above all else. Almost none have any military experience, and the military has been subordinate to the elite for the most part. Therefore, the leadership is hardly revolutionary, and their responses are measured and restrained. Compared with past friction on the issue of Taiwan, such as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1994, the current Chinese response is quite mild.
4. China did not mention North Korea in its response, despite Trump making North Korea an important point of contention in securing concessions from China. This is important because North Korea is an important buffer state for China despite occasional headaches from North Korea's own assertiveness. North Korea is, like the “One-China Policy”, a non-negotiable item due to the legacy of the Korean War.**
5. China needs the “One-China Policy” more than the US needs it; the US does not need the “One-China Policy” to continue the status quo for the US to trade with China or selling weapons to Taiwan. However, the Chinese government cannot accept either a decrease in GDP growth and especially GDP in general, which is an indirect measure of its legitimacy, nor can it accept a political challenge to its legitimacy by conceding to Taiwan's legitimacy. Therefore, the Chinese government is cornered for the time being, and so to its leaders, the only safe and available choice is to do nothing substantive.
6. China believes that Trump will not actually upset the existing status quo. Through globalization, America and China have become interconnected in many ways, and any threat to trade or relations between the countries will threaten both countries' well-being. Michigan automakers and rust-belt farmers all represent electorally significant states that propelled Trump to victory, and Trump cannot afford to erode their livelihoods which depend on China as an export market. China believes that Trump is merely posturing but will never actually turn hostile due to the economic costs for both countries.
My conclusion for Trump's thought process is as follows: