Donald Trump and One China Policy

When I gave a speech at Valdai last October, I compared the Trump phenomenon and the widespread popular protest against the established power similar to the year of 1848. I also wrote an editorial in Chinese titled “Trump’s November Miracle”, but no mainland Chinese press dared to carry it as the Beijing policy establishment was firmly in the camp of believing a Hillary victory. But a leading Singapore Chinese paper, The United Morning News, immediately published the piece and I was not off mark after all, President-elect Donald Trump has just said that he considers America's One China policy a bargaining chip, to be traded off against other things that the United States wants from China. In his description:

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. ... I mean, look ... we're being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don't tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn't be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.

In other words, the One China policy isn't a big deal - it's a bargaining issue, like many other issues. So is Trump right?

Many China Hands in the US think “No”. They believe that, because the relatively stable conditions for relationship between China and Taiwan is precisely built on ambiguity, where Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its national territory but is prepared to let Taiwan continue in existence, while Taiwan also has an interest in not clarifying its relationship with the mainland too precisely, so Trump has stumbled into dangerous water where this delicate and ambiguous relations must be clarified.

Personally I do not think it is NOT a big deal, because Taiwan has always been an implicit bargaining chip for China’s external relations, not least with the US. Despite the official protest on the side of Beijing that rejects Trump’s transactional outlook on Taiwan, it is understood that Trump and his team, led by businessmen and generals, may provide a better platform for bilateral negotiations on the most important dimension of the relations: reducing basic strategic mistrust, in sharp contrast to the Obama team which is led by lawyers with political correctness as their banner. The Sino-US relationship under Obama has reached the lowest point since the Nixon-Kissinger days, despite the highest frequency of summit meetings between Xi and Obama. There is no chemistry between the two, and of course Obama hardly has personal chemistry with any world leaders, except for the out-going Matteo Renzi. The so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) mechanism seems to be going nowhere and should be discarded. In its place we should hope to see real dialogues not only at the summit level but also at functional level. Trump’s blunt approach may improve the relationship in a more substantial way than Obama’s ambiguous, self-contradictory approach especially with his “pivot” strategy to Asia.

While the Obama administration blames China for the current state of affairs, especially the sudden “assertiveness” after Obama’s trip to Beijing in November 2009, the Chinese leaders seem to have realized that they are facing a new cold war. For years, mainstream Chinese and American analysts refused to see this coming. Many preferred to bury their heads in sand. Up until the emergence of “pivot”, the most provocative expression on containing China militarily was “hedging”, reflecting some flexibility and ambiguity. Now “hedging” is over, too. It is not surprising that the hawks in the Chinese military are getting full ears of the leadership and full boost with funding. Not too long ago, the Beijing elite were still debating whether or not Deng Xiaoping’s famed policy dictum, “Hide one's capabilities and bide one's time (taoguang yanghui) ” , which is the opposite to “assertiveness”, should be kept intact, and the majority consensus was an emphatic “yes”. Now, the US “pivot” directly prompted the military leaders to "speed up transformation, deepen and widen the efforts to prepare for future military struggle and solidly push for modernization".

More significantly, President Xi Jinping has gone further by using a different set of terminology to describe the Sino-American relations. Instead of the usual vague language of "strengthening strategic trust" with Washington, Xi, during his trip to the US earlier this year, publicly acknowledged that strategic differences between the two countries may be irreconcilable. The old official approach was to "smooth over these differences (mi he fenqi)", a tactical move; the new catchphrase is to "control and manage the differences (guan kong fenqi)", a major shift to strategic perspective. This is no ordinary change of tone; it is viewed as a timely response to the policy pursued by the Americans. Gone are the days of strategic ambiguity on both sides, and the new leadership under Xi may attempt to reset what it considers a more realistic framework for the future bilateral ties.

The "control and management" approach may imply at least two things: first, the realization that conflict with the US can no longer be avoided within the current framework of engagement; the so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue has contributed little to building mutual trust and the summit meetings. Second, China’s focus will then have to shift towards maintaining a true strategic balance, as if during a cold war stalemate, for the single purpose of avoiding a fully fledged confrontation. The new leadership needs a new approach, new-type of analysts and policy-makers to engage the US.

Beijing cannot continue dealing with the “inside-beltway” foreign policy establishment, whose utter failure in engaging China in the past eight years has pushed the bilateral ties to the dangerous brink of naval confrontation. Now the Washington foreign policy establishment has been dealt a big blow by Trump’s election, we may wait and see that the new administration with its members mostly non-insiders, despite its callous style and brutal rhetoric, may actually turn out to be an effective team for engaging China. It may thus be good news for Sino-US relations in the medium and long run.

Xiang Lanxin is Professor, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva; Director, Center of One Belt One Road and Eurasian Security, Shanghai.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.