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:
My expectations for Trump's actions on China in the next couple of years are as follows:
1. Trump will make vising China and opening negotiations on economic issues a priority;
2. Trump will allow South Korea and Japan larger, more direct roles in containing China – yet because South Korea and Japan both depend on China as their most crucial trade partner, the end result will be some hot air but no real threat of war;
3. Trump will not make further statements about Taiwan during actual negotiations with China, because China will not allow Taiwan to be a public bargaining card, and will likely terminate negotiations if China senses Taiwan being used as a public bargaining chip; and,
4. Trump will seek ways to split the warming relationship between China and Russia, which occurred under Obama, and court Russia as a counter-balance to China.
5. Other measures Trump might consider include restricting Chinese immigration, especially work-related immigration to the US***, restricting Chinese investment in the US, and increasing surveillance and prosecution of Chinese and Chinese-American suspects in the United States for technology- and finance-related crimes.
*Are there other reasons why the One-China Policy so important to the People's Republic of China? Why is it that “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions”? An example, albeit imperfect, may still be demonstrative to an extent -- imagine that the United States Civil War proceeded as it had with a Union victory over the Confederacy, except that the Confederate government, along with large numbers of troops and most of its liquid wealth, escaped to Cuba. The Confederacy also continued to control the Florida Keys. Then, Britain and France lent diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy, sent their navies to block the Union from being able to invade Cuba, and also sold large amounts of military equipment to the Confederacy which prevented any future Union invasion. Many years pass without a resolution, and although the Confederacy has since resigned itself as the de facto government of Cuba and its citizens largely refer to themselves as Cubans, it still maintained a theoretical claim over the original Southern states, and Britain and France continued to support the Confederacy and its competing political and social model vis-à-vis the Union's. Then, imagine that in the interest of trade and also to counter Germany or Russia, Britain and France negotiated with the US a “One-America Policy”, which stated that “Britain and France acknowledge that Americans on either side of the Florida Straits maintain there is but one America and that Cuba is a part of America. Britain and France do not challenge that position.” This opened up trans-Atlantic trade and gave the US political and diplomatic legitimacy. Yet, decades later, newly elected British and French leaders, wary of America's rise in world, publicly took calls from the President of the Confederacy in Cuba, and openly questioned why the “One-America Policy” is sacrosanct, and whether they can exact concessions from the US by putting the “One-America Policy” on the table as a negotiation card.
**On the Korean War: “With the Chinese intervention, the United States confronted a hard truth: Threatening a nuclear attack would not be enough to win the war. It was as if the Chinese hadn’t noticed—or, worse, weren’t impressed by—the atomic-capable B-29s waiting at Guam. President Truman raised the ante. At a November press conference, he told reporters he would take whatever steps were necessary to win in Korea, including the use of nuclear weapons. Those weapons, he added, would be controlled by military commanders in the field.”
***Trump disfavors H1B as a whole, but any attack on H1B work visas will actually impact Indians the most, who receive 2/3 of all work visas.