On December 2, 2016, US President-elect Donald Trump put the decades-old One China policy into question by accepting a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan. The One China policy — which previous US presidential administrations had adopted and abided by since 1979 — is the most important step the US government has taken to ensure a stable and healthy relationship with China and is arguably the foundation for post-1979 Sino-US relations. Although initial speculation indicated that it was Trump’s ignorance of diplomatic protocol that caused this incident, individuals from both Tsai’s administration and pro-Taiwan lobbying groups in the US later admitted that the call had been long-planned. In fact, following the call, Trump added that the US does not have to be bound by the One China policy “unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
Trump’s statement suggests that once he enters the White House, he will create more uncertainty for the One China policy — along with Cross Strait relations — and potentially use it as a leverage point to pressure China into making concessions on other contentious issues such as the South China Sea and trade. Although it is easy to use Taiwan as a counterweight against China, the trilateral relationship between the US, China, and Taiwan is much more complicated. For example, since the issue regarding the sovereignty of Taiwan is directly related to China’s contemporary political identity and the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy, if the US government shows any signs of backtracking on the One China policy and helps Taiwan to increase its diplomatic standing, such moves could cross Beijing’s red line and potentially jeopardize the very foundation of post-1979 US-China relations.
On the other hand, given that Taiwan has undergone significant political and identity transformations since the 1980s and receives strong political support in the US — especially within the Republican Party (GOP) and other conservative organizations — Trump could face strong domestic opposition if he treats Taiwan simply as a bargaining chip in dealing with China. Since Taiwan has become an institutionalized democracy, the American political establishment shares similar identities with Taiwan. Also, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires the US to sell arms and “maintain the capacity” to defend Taiwan. If Trump fails to execute this law, Washington could risk losing its own political legitimacy. Therefore, while Beijing would reject any enhancement of Taiwan’s international standing, Taiwan is also much different today, due to its growing influence and shared liberal democratic identities with Washington.
Since Taiwan remains China’s core interest, Trump’s motive of simply using Taiwan as leverage against China could be very difficult, if not dangerous, especially if he continues to disregard the One China policy. On the other hand, his domestic political allies would most likely pressure him to treat Taiwan as more than a bargaining chip due to shared their political identities and Taiwan’s political influence in Washington.
CCP’s Political Legitimacy
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, national unification has arguably been one of the most important goals articulated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The legitimacy of the CCP is strongly tied to restoring China’s great power status and national and territorial unity, including regaining perceived lost territories like Taiwan.1 The CCP has been promoting nationalism based on the narrative of Chinese victimhood at the hands of foreign imperial powers from 1840 to 1949 — especially European and Japanese imperial powers — in order to enhance its own domestic legitimacy. Most Chinese citizens support the narrative that the entire Chinese nation has a collective memory based on past victimhood at the hands of foreign enemies.2 In this sense, national unity, along with territorial restoration, under the CCP is an important part of China’s identity based on the long-term goal of national rejuvenation, as stated by President Xi Jinping.
When applying this Chinese self-constructed identity to Taiwan, scholar Chris Ogden argues that unification with Taiwan remains an unfinished business for the CCP.3 Further, since Taiwan was taken away by Japan — arguably China’s most important historical rival — reunification with Taiwan could be interpreted as a way to correct historical injustice collectively suffered by the Chinese nation. In this way, a prouder Chinese identity based on a unified great power status could replace the one based on historical victimhood. This is why any action taken by Taiwan or a third party, the US in this case, to make Taiwan a de jure sovereign state would cross Beijing’s red line. It will trigger a potential military response from Beijing. In the words of scholar James Palmer, even if one puts aside the issue of the CCP’s legitimacy, the vast majority of Chinese citizens still cannot understand why Taiwan deserves to become an independent sovereign state. In addition, the 2005 Anti-Secession Law states that if Taiwan seeks independence, or “that possibilities for a peaceful unification should be completely exhausted,” Beijing maintains the right to resort to “non-peaceful” means to prevent Taiwan from becoming an independent sovereign state. Therefore, Beijing also has a legal reason to justify the use of military action against Taiwan should the latter seek de jure independence.
Chinese leaders today are also likely to take drastic military actions against Taiwan should it move towards de jure independence.
Given China’s contemporary national identity, the CCP’s political legitimacy revolving around Taiwan’s political status, and the Anti-Secession Law, it is clear that Beijing does not perceive Taiwan as a bargaining chip. Since Trump has implied that he wants to force China to cut better deals on issues like trade and the South China Sea by not recognizing the One China policy, he has touched on one of Beijing’s most important core interests. While Trump could simply perceive Taiwan as a chess piece, Taiwan is far more important to Beijing than the US for both political and legal reasons. Thus, the Trump administration could run into significant difficulties — if not a military conflict — if it uses Taiwan as a bargaining chip to cut deals with Beijing.
For example, when the US government invited Taiwan’s President to visit the US in 1995, the CCP reacted by firing ballistic missiles toward the sea off Taiwan’s major ports in March 1996, triggering the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.4 The crisis ended when the US Navy deployed two carrier battle groups near the Taiwan Strait and Beijing perceived its inability to threaten the two US carriers as another humiliation by a superior foreign military power. Thereafter, then-President Jiang Zemin accelerated the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) long-term modernization by allowing annual double-digit budget growth in the following decades. The goal was to transform the PLA from a ragged people’s army to a professional and high-tech one able to defeat Taiwan and potential US intervention in times of crisis.5
The 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis looked like a bloodless victory for Taiwan. If Beijing was willing to take risky actions against Taiwan when its military was one of the world’s most obsolete back in the 1990s, one cannot rule out that Chinese leaders today are also likely to take drastic military actions against Taiwan should it move towards de jure independence. Although the US military remains superior to the PLA in many aspects, the latter’s modernization in the last two decades has already created many uncertainties for the US and its allies. In the event of a shooting war across the Taiwan Strait, the US military today can no longer guarantee a clear-cut victory against Beijing without suffering significant casualties and risking a potential nuclear exchange. Nevertheless, nobody can guarantee that Washington will not intervene, especially under domestic political pressure.
Even if the US does not directly enter the conflict, China could still face political and economic isolation from the West, as the US and EU did to Russia following its seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014. It is also important to note that Taiwan enjoys far more robust political support in Washington and other Western countries than Ukraine does. Multilateral economic sanctions from the West could potentially wreak havoc on the Chinese economy, leading to massive unemployment and social unrest. However, the biggest group of victims resulting from a war over the Taiwan Strait will be the Taiwanese people, as they will be directly in the line of fire. As a result, should an armed conflict break out over the Taiwan Strait, it would be an economic, political, and humanitarian disaster for both sides.
Although Beijing’s reaction to the December 2 phone call was relatively mild, the Chinese navy seized an underwater drone operated by the US Navy in the South China Sea on December 15, after Trump publicly questioned the One China policy. According to Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer, “Trump really believes that America has a much stronger negotiating position internationally, and the Chinese are going to show him that the reality is very unlike that.” Therefore, although one cannot rule out the possibility that Trump’s foreign policy team could successfully use the Taiwan issue as a bargaining chip, such a move could be dangerous, especially since Taiwan’s movement towards de jure independence or having more third party diplomatic recognition would cross Beijing’s red line. Thus, using Taiwan to bargain with China is not as easy as it sounds, and doing so without consideration of potential consequences could lead to military conflict.
Taiwan’s Political Identity
While Trump would likely face a highly uncooperative China when using Taiwan as a bargaining chip, Taiwan’s transformation from an autocratic regime to a liberal democracy — along with traditionally strong support from US political circles — could pose another challenge to Trump. This is because when Taiwan bid farewell to right-wing autocracy after 1987 and became a liberal democracy that shares similar political identities with the US, Taiwan became no longer a US geopolitical protectorate.
The dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty arguably started with the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), when Taiwan was ceded to Imperial Japan until the latter’s defeat in World War II in 1945. Following Japan’s surrender, then-Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist (KMT) government inherited Taiwan. After facing local protests over corruption, along with support for the CCP and Taiwanese independence, Chiang responded with a violent crackdown in 1947, causing more than 20,000 local Taiwanese and aborigines to be massacred. In the words of scholar Malte Kaeding, this crackdown — known as the 228 Incident — led to a “sub-ethnic” cleavage between KMT supporters, who had arrived in Taiwan with Chiang in the late 1940s, and the local Taiwanese, who included Han-Chinese who had been living in Taiwan for several centuries before 1945, Hakka, aborigines, etc.6 Today, the 228 Incident still remains an important Taiwanese pro-independence justification, reminding the Taiwanese of the perceived “Chinese” political culture of autocracy and violence, no matter if such violence is carried out by the KMT or the CCP.7 In this sense, the 228 Incident became the indigenous Taiwanese’ sense of victimhood at the hands of the ruling “Chinese” KMT.
According to scholar Ruo-lan Chen, despite the 228 Incident, the ruling KMT was successful in fostering an ethnic Chinese identity in Taiwan from the 1950s until the 1980s. Such a Chinese national identity was used to justify the KMT’s overriding political goal of militarily regaining China from the CCP, especially during the height of the Cold War.8 During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a “mainland fever” driven by both the mainland’s reform and opening-up and the KMT-fostered Chinese identity led many Taiwanese to increase interaction with China. As such Cross Strait interactions increased, Chen points out that “the sense of societal and cultural differences between China and Taiwan intensified.”
As Taiwan currently has one of the “most formidable and well-funded” lobbying organizations in Washington, it enjoys broad political support in the US Congress.
“Thus, resuming a relationship with China compelled residents of Taiwan to re-examine the political differences between the two regimes. This perceived political difference was further reinforced by China’s frequent military maneuvers. An active political identification with Taiwan might inevitably occur as a defense against mainland China if individuals felt they were constantly being threatened,” especially after the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.9
In the words of international relations scholar Alexander Wendt, international politics between nation states — or non-state polities like Taiwan — are characterized by “reciprocal interactions,” meaning that “being treated as an object for the gratification of others precludes the positive identification with others.” Conversely, one’s aggressive behavior forces others to respond with similar behavior. Hence, it is through the process of social interactions between self-identified polities that the “us” determines who the “other” is, and which “other” is hostile, neutral, or friendly.10 In the case of post-1980s Cross Strait relations, the interactions between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese actually led to the strengthening of Taiwanese identity and perception of China as the “other,” although most Chinese still see Taiwanese as part of the Chinese “us.”
After the US’ abrogation of diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 and more than three decades of the KMT’s autocratic rule, President Chiang Ching-kuo moved forward to democratize Taiwan by allowing elections for seats in the Legislative Yuan and the creation of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, composing of mainly local Taiwanese. Thus, according to scholars Nathan and Scobell, Chiang re-legitimized Taiwan’s international standing through democratization, allowing the twenty-three million Taiwanese to have stronger bargaining power should Beijing continue to demand political unification.11
As Shirk argues, Taiwan’s democratization has given the US a normative justification to defend Taiwan, making it more difficult for Beijing to seek political unification by force. In fact, many Americans mistakenly view Taiwan as an independent country. Additionally, as Taiwan currently has one of the “most formidable and well-funded” lobbying organizations in Washington, Taipei enjoys broad political support in the US Congress.12 Shirk also points out that most Americans have a “natural affinity” with the Taiwanese people because of the latter’s post-1987 democratic system and market economy.13 Thus, Trump’s administration would come face to face with strong domestic political support for Taiwan, and Taiwan’s supporters in the US would not tolerate Taiwan being treated as merely a bargaining chip.
In fact, according to the Washington Post, the call on December 2 was planned weeks ahead by specialists and Taiwan supporters in both Taiwan and Trump’s foreign policy team. Alex Huang, a spokesman for the Taiwanese President, confirmed that the call had been planned. Also, during the 2016 GOP National Convention, some of Trump’s allies in the party inserted the 1982 Six Assurances into the Party platform and promised to take tougher positions against perceived Chinese aggression in the Asia-Pacific region. The Six Assurances to Taiwan requires the US not to agree to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, not to hold prior consultations with China regarding arms sales to Taiwan, not to mediate between China and Taiwan, not to revise the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, not to alter its position on the sovereignty of Taiwan, and not to pressure Taiwan into negotiating with China. More specifically, Edward J. Feulner, a member of Trump’s transition team and the former president of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, played a crucial role in bringing about the December 2 call. Former senator Bob Dole — now a lobbyist with the Washington law firm Alston & Bird — also helped to orchestrate the call after receiving USD 140,000 from May to October.
Finally, it is important to note that some of Trump’s top advisors, including his White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the head of the newly created National Trade Council Peter Navarro, are highly supportive of enhancing Taiwan’s role in international politics to counter-balance China’s increasing geopolitical clout. On November 7, Navarro wrote an article for the Foreign Policy magazine arguing that “the Obama administration’s treatment of Taiwan is egregious. This beacon of democracy in Asia is perhaps the most militarily vulnerable US partner anywhere in the world.” Therefore, he believes that the next administration should seize the opportunity to enhance military, economic, and diplomatic ties with Taiwan — along with Japan, India, South Korea, and Vietnam — to balance against the rising China.
Further, Trump’s own Party and political allies would also push to enhance political and military ties with Taiwan. Given that Trump needs his political allies and staff — who are more serious in strengthening diplomatic ties with Taiwan — within the GOP to support him on other domestic and foreign policy issues, he would face strong domestic political pressure to treat Taiwan much more than a bargaining chip. As a result, US-China relations under the Trump administration and the new GOP-dominated Congress could potentially deteriorate, meaning that one should expect more US arms sales to Taiwan, along with encouragement for Taiwan to participate in international organizations, and to advertise itself as a “beacon” of successful liberal democracy to China, as Navarro argues. As a result, given that Taiwan possesses a strong voice within US politics, it would be difficult for Trump to treat Taiwan as only a bargaining chip when dealing with Beijing.
Considering China’s political identity, the CCP’s legitimacy, and Chinese law, Trump would most likely encounter difficulty when trying to use Taiwan to force China to make concessions on issues like trade and the South China Sea. If Beijing perceives that peaceful unification with Taiwan is out of reach, or that Taipei receives significant political and military support from a third party like the US, there is a possibility that another Taiwan Strait crisis could occur, making the security environment in the Asia-Pacific much more unpredictable.
A US-China standoff over the Taiwan Strait could lead to confrontation in other areas like the South China Sea, and Beijing would risk losing its domestic political legitimacy if it makes concessions under Trump’s abrasive threats. If pushed into a corner, Beijing would have little choice but to take risky actions toward perceived US aggression against Chinese territorial sovereignty. This is why using Taiwan as leverage against China could be dangerous and destabilizing. While Taiwan could be a bargaining chip for Trump, it is also China’s red line.
As Taiwan enjoys significant political support among the US public, especially within the GOP, if Trump uses the Taiwan issue only as a bargaining chip in negotiating with China, he could face pushback from his own political allies. As the arrangement of the December 2 phone call demonstrated, Taiwan’s political influence in the US — among both the political elites and the public — cannot be underestimated. Trump also needs to abide by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. As a result, while there is a possibility that Trump could successfully use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in handling US-China relations, such a move would likely trigger the risks of an armed conflict with China and political resistance in the US.
1. Liao, N. (2013). Presentist or cultural memory: Chinese nationalism as constraint on Beijing’s foreign policy making. Asia Politics & Policy, 5(4), 547, 556.
2. Ibid. 544, 554-555.
3. Ogden, C. (2013). A normalized dragon: Constructing China’s security identity. Pacific Focus, XXVIII(2), 250, 257-258.
4. Nathan, A. J. and Scobell, A. (2013). China’s Search for Security. New York: Columbia University Press, 221.
5. Shirk, S. (2008). China: Fragile Superpower. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 202.
6. Kaeding, M. P. (2011). Identity formation in Taiwan and Hong Kong – How much difference, how many similarities? In: Taiwanese Identity in the 21st Century: Domestic, Regional and Global Perspectives, Schubert, G. and Damm, J. (eds.). Routledge: London, 258-279.
7. Cole, J. M. (2014). Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan. New York: Dow Jones & Company, 182.
8. Chen, R. (2014). Reconstructed nationalism in Taiwan: A politicized and economically driven identity. Nations and Nationalism, 20(3), 524.
9. Ibid. 525, 541.
10. Wendt, A. (1992). Anarchy is what states make of it: The social construction of power politics. International Organization, 46(2), 406-408.
11. Nathan and Scobell, China’s Search for Security, 225-226.
12. Shirk, Fragile Superpower, 184.