With five weeks to go before he takes office, President-elect Donald Trump is dedicating a good portion of his time to reassuring his supporters that he does indeed intend to do things differently – including in foreign policy.
Judging by Mr. Trump’s comments over the weekend, that different and apparently tougher stance the United States will take around the world come Jan. 20 will extend to US-China relations.
By doubling down on his notion that the US can get a better deal from China, primarily in the economic sphere, by using the sensitive issue of Taiwan and the “One China” policy as a bargaining chip, Trump may be offering a foretaste of how he intends to conduct relations with other powers.
The business-mogul-turned-president’s new approach: Find a country’s point of highest pressure, and use it to extract more favorable conditions for the US.
But China – which issued a calm but stern response Monday to Trump’s latest Taiwan pronouncements – is putting the president-elect on notice regarding its very different view: that placing a country’s core interests on the bargaining table is simply a recipe for rocky relations – or perhaps worse.
Noting that the issue of Taiwan “has a bearing on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Chinese government is reaffirming Taiwan as a nonnegotiable national interest – and the “one China policy” as the foundation of US-China relations.
More broadly, the Chinese appear to be sending signals of their own, suggesting that Trump will face stiff global resistance if he attempts to open every issue to economic deal-making.
Trump set the Taiwan brouhaha in motion earlier this month when he took a congratulatory call from Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen – something no US president (or president-elect) has done since President Carter established full relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1978. Under the “One China” policy, the US recognizes Beijing as the sole government of China, yet it sells defensive weaponry to Taiwan – which China considers to be a renegade province of the one China.
Trump then took the controversy another step, dismissing criticism that he is playing with fire, while repeating his position that playing the Taiwan card could open the door to Chinese action on trade issues, monetary policy, and North Korea.
“I fully understand the ‘one China’ policy, but 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,” Trump told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace.
“I mean, look, we’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation,” he continued, adding other issues like North Korea and Chinese military activity in the South China Sea to a list the US could get a better deal on by using Taiwan as a bargaining chip.
For some foreign policy analysts, Trump’s pronouncements are a risky needling that could potentially spiral to war. But others say that, while perilous, the approach has the merit of putting the Chinese on notice that Trump has a sharp eye on US core interests as well.
“I think what Mr. Trump is doing here is intriguingly creating a sense of a parallel concerning core interests and establishing a position that we have interests in this relationship as much as they do,” says Dean Cheng, research fellow in Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “He’s saying, ‘Why do we have to respect China’s core interests, when here are America’s core interests that are not being addressed.' I think he’s calling that equation into question.”
This “may not be the best approach to China,” Mr. Cheng adds, but says it’s also important to realize that Trump is not yet speaking as president. “The good news is that these are statements from president-elect Trump,” he says. “Until Jan. 20 he’s a private citizen, and I see him using this interim period to question some of the assumptions about US-China relations that have just been accepted for more than 35 years.”
Some go further, saying Trump is demonstrating he won’t be a pushover.
Shaun Rein, founding director of the Shanghai-based China Marketing Research Group and author of "The End of Cheap China," gives Trump high marks for serving China notice of his expectations.
“Trump has not said that he doesn’t acknowledge the One-China policy, nor is he the actual president yet,” Mr. Rein noted in a recent commentary on the CNN website. But by invoking Taiwan before he does takes office, he says Trump “will have additional leverage to negotiate with China on more core American interests [such as] open shipping planes in the South China Sea, reduced cybersecurity risks emanating from China, and less protectionism and unfair competition for American business interests in China.”
Unlike some analysts who say upending the status quo could potentially lead to war, Rein believes it could actually prevent conflicts in the region by convincing China that a tougher America is afoot in the neighborhood.
But many analysts believe Trump is playing with fire in potentially alienating China over Taiwan. They note, for example, that Beijing has increasingly accepted and even joined international pressure on Pyongyang as its frustration with its troublesome neighbor has grown.
Last month, China went along with a new round of sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear activity, agreeing to cut its coal purchases from the North and thus curtailing one of Pyongyang’s few sources of income.
But China could reverse course on North Korea in the face of US pressure on Taiwan, some analysts say.
Heritage’s Cheng says it’s not necessarily a bad thing if Trump – in his new-kind-of-president way – is letting the Chinese know that the US has issues with the relationship that are as important as the Taiwan issue is to China. One problem he foresees, however, is that China is about to embark on a year of renewing the Politburo’s standing committee, and will be focused inward in much the same way the US has been for the past year with the presidential election.
“Perhaps Trump is saying nothing more than, ‘Maybe you should respect a little more what’s important to us, so that we can continue to respect what’s important to you,’ ” he says. “The question will be how the Chinese hear that, because there’s no question that their internal political context will affect how they respond.”