During his election campaign, Donald Trump was popular in China not only among nationalistic netizens, but also with some academic researchers and commentators. It was believed that since he was a successful businessman and a pragmatist, he would not be stubborn on the so-called “political correctness” in US, especially on topics like democracy and human rights, and hence China and the US would have more opportunities to cooperate on substantial issues. However, his recent tweets and interviews have evoked a new introspection in China, that is, even if the US has abandoned the “orthodoxy,” it remains to be seen whether this will be a blessing or a curse for Beijing. Having a president who will unravel the diplomatic rhetoric between the US and China, the US has more chances to encounter Beijing in a more direct way, yet this does not mean that the two great powers are ready to challenge each other’s core national interests in an unlimited way.
Trump has found a new way to inform his Chinese audiences. Through Twitter, he has revealed his attitude by criticizing China on the South China Sea, bilateral trade, and currency manipulation, yet nothing is as dangerous and destructive as the Taiwan issue. No matter how inexperienced Trump is in Washington, it must have been impossible for his advisers not to have briefed him about Taiwan’s significance to China and the potential catastrophic results of playing this card with Beijing. But instead of cooling down the issue, this dramatic businessman is still taking further steps. Why? Probably the reason for his behavior is that he believes he is playing “the Art of the Deal.” As a great negotiator, he believes he can bargain a good price for Taiwan.
The episode began with Trump’s unprecedented (“unpresidented”) phone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen. Initially, China was restrained when it accused Tsai of playing a trick and separating Trump from the incident. Yet American’s next president did not appreciate it, and in an interview with Fox News said that the US was not bound by the One China policy and would use it as a bargaining chip with China. After he launched the deal, Trump continuously increased the offer by declaring he would greatly expand the US’ nuclear capability. The US media also hinted that Trump might meet Tsai on her stopover visit to the US close to his inauguration on January 20. It seems that the price of Taiwan is going higher and higher, yet could Trump really get what he wants in the perceived bargain?
Firstly, a best deal is the lowest price for the highest value. Superficially, for Trump, the One China policy adhered to by his predecessors for 44 years is the Emperor’s new clothes, and what he did was just pointing out that the Emperor “isn’t wearing anything at all”. If so, he has proposed a great bargain by getting everything from nothing. But in the eyes of his valuable chip — Taiwan — his bargain has been misinterpreted as military support and insurance for challenging China’s base line. Ironically, when international society expects China to respond to this infringement with nationalism, Taiwanese society did not stay calm as well. Not only did a fight with the PLA become one of the hottest topics on Taiwanese social media, its legislators frequently spoke of Taiwan’s independence and its preparation for the coming war with Beijing. Taiwan’s defense minister Feng Shih-kuan, who is very cautious on his remarks, also openly spoke of Taiwan’s military capability against China. Rather than a simple term insisted by China, the One China policy actually has a far more complicated meaning with much higher value. Hence, a more realistic question is what the US could get from paying such a whopping price? A lose-lose China-US relationship? An unstable Taiwan Strait?
Trump is using his tweets to challenge China’s core interest and the status quo on one hand, while greatly expanding the US nuclear arsenal on the other, which will destroy China’s efforts to avoid an arms race.
Second, a great dealer knows the peak price. In his business bible “The Art of the Deal”, Trump described successful business negotiation as “keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what he is after.” Even if Trump’s few tweets are vague on what he is after from China, Beijing has sent a clear message on what he cannot get from China. After he openly questioned the One China policy, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that “only if China and the US respect each other and give consideration to the other’s core interests and key concerns, can there be long-term, stable cooperation.” Beijing has repeatedly emphasized Taiwan as its core national interest, which is different from the South China Sea or China as a market economy. Chinese professor Shi Yinhong, who is also an adviser to Beijing, even held that China should conduct a trade war or sever diplomatic ties with the US if it continues to challenge the Taiwan issue. Therefore, if “pushing and pushing” is his tactic, “furtherly pushing” will not “end up with what he wants” but will instead deteriorate the situation to an unstable Asia Pacific — not a friendly environment for “making America great again.”
Third, a man who prides himself on his negotiation skills should be able to distinguish between a realistic goal and a non-negotiable security issue. The Taiwan issue has been neglected and marginalized by the US and international society for decades. Of course, this is not because they support the PRC as the real China without conditions, nor have all the former US presidents been too weak in front of Beijing. Instead, they favor the status quo in Taiwan strait. The long-established understanding benefits all parties involved and the stakeholders. Any changes to the status quo could only anger the relevant parties, force them to fight and make chaos, and gain nothing in return.
Fourth, a great dealer is not a gambler. For Trump, what is at stake is not only international diplomacy, but, perhaps more important, the realization of his promise to satisfy his voters. In his election campaign, it was easy for him to chase the appetites of his supporters by portraying China as a black villain. But when he takes office, his voters will require tangible achievements. It is known that he won the electoral college while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Currently, his policy on Taiwan, if he does have one, has been strongly criticized by US elites and even President Barack Obama. If his tough and “pushing” approach towards China does not work, or if it leads to a negative impact on US interests — such as hurting the agricultural industry — it will be very difficult for him in his presidency.
Currently Beijing’s tone on the Taiwan issue is growing. As a strongman leading a country with historical grievances, Xi Jinping’s strategic determination on national reunification is much stronger than his predecessors. Recently, the Chinese military has conducted activities in the international airspace around Taiwan, and the West African country of São Tomé and Príncipe has broken off ties with Taiwan and aligned itself with China. Clearly these are warnings against Tsai’s tricks. If these signals are not serious enough in the eyes of Trump, what will be much more dangerous is that Trump is using his tweets to challenge China’s core interest and the status quo on one hand, while greatly expanding the US nuclear arsenal on the other, which will destroy China’s efforts to avoid an arms race. Until now, all we can see is that Trump’s bargaining has backfired.