Donald J. Trump campaigned on a platform that he was going to make the greatest deals imaginable for the United States. According to this view, he rightly criticized the way that China has cheated the United States. In fact, he appointed Peter Navarro to be the head of the White House National Trade Council. In 2012, Navarro made waves for his brilliant documentary on how China has undercut U.S. interests through ceaseless economic warfare. Trump is keenly aware of China’s recent military moves aimed at undermining the American presence in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia.
Shortly after Trump’s election, one of his first acts was to break with diplomatic protocol and accept a congratulatory phone call with the pro-independence Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This move sent the Chinese Politburo into a rage not seen since before the Nixon Administration. It was a glorious thing to behold.
In taking that call, Trump opened up for question whether the United States will maintain the status quo in the Sino-American relationship. When people talk of “stability” in this context what they really mean is that America should be bound to accept the so-called “One-China Policy.”
The One-China Policy was a strategic formulation embraced by the Carter Administration. In order to keep China aligned with the West during the heady days of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers placated China by no longer recognizing Taiwan’s government. The government of Taiwan was run by the Chinese nationalists of the Guomindang Party. This was the same group who had lost China in the civil war with the Communists led by Mao Tse-tung. At the end of the civil war, the Guomindang escaped across the Taiwan Strait and established themselves on Taiwan. They claimed to be the legitimate government of China-in-exile. The United States recognized them as such until the Carter Administration.
As former Nixon aide Bruce Herschensohn wrote in his 2006 book, Taiwan: The Threatened Democracy, Jimmy Carter wanted to solidify the ties that Nixon had first formed with China. Thus, President Carter recognized the Communist government in Beijing as the official government of China. Under this approach, while the United States would not allow for Taiwan to be forcibly reintegrated with the mainland, it would also no longer recognize Taiwan as a fully sovereign state. This reality has persisted for decades. With Trump, many believed the paradigm would return to the pre-Carter assumptions.
The Chinese stratagem of slowly eroding one’s adversary was already underway by the time the Carter Administration consented to Chinese demands over Taiwan. Taiwan was China’s ultimate prize. For years, the United States had considered Taiwan to be, in the words of General Douglas MacArthur “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Taiwan was a constant thorn in China’s side. It left the mainland vulnerable. The Chinese government was going to do whatever it took to regain control over this rebellious land. To the Chinese, Taiwan was nothing more than a breakaway province. Indeed, most Chinese leaders will tell Westerners that they view Taiwan as Abraham Lincoln viewed the American South: rebels who needed to be brought to heel.
But this is not the American Civil War. What’s more, unlike the Confederate States of America, the Taiwanese government is not seeking to protect an oligarchic economy predicated on chattel slavery. Taiwan is a liberal capitalist democracy that has been bullied and threatened by larger and more violent neighbors (not unlike Israel). Taiwain is, as Herschensohn accurately called the island, “the threatened democracy.”
Even in spite of recognizing China’s Communist Party as the only government of China, America has maintained its close military alliance with Taiwan. Indeed, in 1996, the United States rushed aircraft carriers to Taiwan’s defense when China seemed poised to strike militarily against Taiwan. In 1996, China was upset that Taiwan was slated to elect its most pro-independence government in years, so they decided to try and push the Taiwanese away from the pro-independence movement through a show of force. The Clinton Administration intervened to protect Taiwan’s democratic freedoms. This move infuriated the Chinese and set them down the path of intense resistance toward America’s regional hegemony.
Although the United States has a multitude of shared economic interests with China, those interests have declined over the last decade. Further, as I have noted, the Chinese likely have been using Free Trade as a weapon against the United States at least for the last 30 years. Even now, as America’s economic relationship with China has naturally changed, America’s military alliance and democratic bond with Taiwan remains as strong as it ever has been.
Also, China’s economy has been contracting since the 2008 Great Recession. This, coupled with the decline in demand from the emerging markets, has exacerbated their economic decline. While China’s economy may be far away from actual collapse, the fact is that they are not the economic behemoth they once were. Indeed, as their economy has rapidly modernized, they are now at a point where they must make the pivot from a developing, predominantly manufacturing economy to a modern one (or so the Chinese leadership believes). As they try to make this turn, there will be a great many dislocations that will serve to encourage the coming collapse of the Chinese Communist Party.
This reality will increase the instability of the Asia-Pacific. Right now, the Chinese military has been on a ceaseless modernization program. They have intensified their power both at home and are expanding their reach globally. Now, the Chinese have laid claim to several disputed sections of the South China Sea, they have established unlawful Air Defense Identification Zones, they have challenged U.S. forces operating in the region, and they seem poised to do much more than that. In the event of instability at home, President Trump should expect China to lash out aggressively abroad.
Chinese society itself is a cauldron of disunion in spite of the misleadingly placid appearance that the CCP presents to the outside world. Indeed, things have gotten so bad in the country that China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has embarked upon the greatest power grab since Mao. The logic is simple: intensify the central government’s hold on power in order to curb any separatist sentiment from China’s outlying provinces. This has been a theme repeated throughout China’s history of dynastic decline. But, as Chinese history has proven, the tighter a central government squeezes its power, the more power it actually loses.
All of these factors will continue to compound until China acts out violently against the United States and its allies in the region. This eventuality means the Trump Administration must stop placating China. It only empowers them and weakens us. The United States needs to intensify its pivot to Asia, if it is to contain any violent outburst by China. What’s more, we should recognize Taiwan as a fully independent state and reaffirm our commitment to defend Taiwanese sovereignty.
All of this talk of reaffirming the One-China Policy, therefore, is ill-advised. President Trump must recognize that trying to get better deals with China is irrelevant compared to the geostrategic implications of America simply abandoning Taiwan. Only through consistent resistance to Chinese revanchism and economic manipulation can the America better protect its interests in Asia (and beyond) in the long run.
Fact is, China is not interested in making a better deal. Beijing wants to push America out of Asia and reassert its ancient place as the dominant actor there. Once China secures Taiwan, it will be able to threaten Japan’s southern flank and push into the waters around the Philippines. The existence of a China-friendly leader in the Philippines would only further complicate U.S. grand strategy for the region. Also, as the Chinese made inroads expanding their reach beyond Taiwan, there is little doubt that they would then have the capacity and reach to threaten American territories in Guam and Hawaii.
This is inimical to our interests and must be prevented at all costs. Resolve in the face of Chinese irredentism is the Trump Administration’s only hope for securing U.S. interests. Let us hope this fact is never forgotten.