U.S.-China relations in jeopardy

By Yu-long Ling

“Before making any decision, think carefully three times.”

—Confucius

Our president-elect, Donald Trump does not know the wisdom of the above statement, nor does he care. He simply reacts quickly on Twitter whenever he feels like it.

As we all remember, one of the conditions for the United States to normalize its relations with China in 1979 was through the three communiqués with China under which the United States accepts the “One China” policy.

In order to protect the interests of our former ally, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Congress immediately passed the Taiwan Relations Act. Under this act, the U.S. will maintain informal relations with Taiwan (de-recognition of Taiwan). As such, there will have no official contact between high government officials of the U.S. and Taiwan. This has been the status quo for the past 40 years.

While this arrangement is very complicated and highly sensitive, it has been stable and workable until Mr. Trump accepted a phone call from the current President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, and posted it on Twitter. This one simple act could change our future.

In order to better understand the implications, let’s retrace what happened with that phone call.

On Dec. 2, Mr. Trump spoke by telephone with President Tsai. Two days later he defended his action as an acceptance of a simple congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan for him being elected president of the U.S., to which the U.S. has sold billions of dollars of arms. He then launched a string of criticisms on China for its currency manipulation, other unfair trade practices and militarization of the South China Sea.

On Dec. 11, he stated, “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.” By “other things,” he meant China’s action in the South China Sea and lack of restraint on North Korea’s development of nuclear arms.

Trump’s tough talk set off a shock waves from Washington D.C. to Beijing to Taipei, as this was a striking break with the practice the U.S. has consistently followed since its establishment of diplomatic relations with China in 1979 (no official contact between U.S. and Taiwan leaders).

More ominously, his actions, in a sense, shook the foundation of American-Chinese diplomatic relations, the “One-China” policy. Trump’s Dec. 11 statements make it clear that he wants to set the One China policy as a target in his “deal” with China on the issues of trade, the South China Sea, North Korea, and, of course, Taiwan. While he made his provocative statements as president elect, what will happen once he assumes office in just few weeks?

Publicly, the U.S. has stated that unification between China and Taiwan is a Chinese affair. To that end, peaceful negotiations involve only China and Taiwan and the U.S. will not interfere in their affairs. However, in reality, the U.S. plays a key role in the diplomatic tug-of war between Taiwan and China.

While many may view the U.S. an insignificant wedge between the two countries, I argue that the U.S. is an active “equalizer.”

As stated earlier, under this piece of domestic legislation, the U.S. may only maintain informal relations with Taiwan. However, to ensure the security of Taiwan, the U.S. will continue to sell defensive arms to Taiwan. More importantly, in that legislation, in the event China uses force that causes “grave concern” to the U.S., the U.S. may intervene.

The main question is to what extent the U.S. will become involved if China uses force. Let’s hope that it never comes to that.

To put it simply, the U.S. has asked Taiwan to not push for independence and has reminded China to play nice and not use force. Due to historical developments and the fact that U.S. traditionally has been the only super power in the world, the policy between Taiwan and China has directly hinged on the U.S. position.

At this point, one thing seems clear is that China is unwilling to accept the U.S. role as an “equalizer.” China’s view has been that Washington must continue to recognize the “OneChina” policy as a precondition to any kind of constructive relationship with China.

With one phone call. Mr. Trump has in effect turned this on its side. According to Mr. Trump, China must fulfill the U.S. preferences in order to earn the reward of U.S. recognition of One-China. If China feels the U.S. is shifting toward what the Chinese would perceive as an increased obstruction of unification, the Chinese will immediately become less cooperative on important U.S. objectives and will also assume the worst possible U.S. motives on all other regional strategic issues.

As we all know, change or preservation are the only choices when we make decisions. Change may be better or worse, while preservation will not, at least, make things worse. As we need China in solving many vital issues the world faces today, it is clear that the latter seems much safer.

Professor Yu-long Ling, a Franklin resident, is an expert in foreign policy. Send comments to letters to awoods@tribtown.com.