Strategy or Ambiguity? Taiwan-China Relations in the Age of Trump

Before even having time to organize his sock drawer in the White House, Donald Trump managed to endanger US relations with China and broke the policy tradition that had seen six presidents before him come and go. Traditionally, the US has acknowledged the One China Policy while engaging in trade and security agreements with Taiwan. This approach, referred to as strategic ambiguity, has helped preventing Taiwan from pushing for independence and China from forcing reunification, both of which would possibly result in armed conflict. The question is whether Trump’s blunt nature is compatible with the tiptoeing required for the strategy of ambiguity or if he will bring the time of peaceful coexistence to an end.

It is somewhat of a challenge to discuss the status of Taiwan without taking a political stance. This dilemma dates back to 1949, when the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) established itself on the mainland, forcing the Republic of China (ROC) to flee to the island of Taiwan. Even though the ROC (henceforth Taiwan) was by then situated in Taiwan it continued to represent all of China in the UN until 1971. Under President Nixon, however, political recognition shifted toward the PRC, making the communist government the sole representative of China to the international community. The One China Policy emerged as an effort to minimize Taiwan’s international influence. This policy entails that China considers any claim by Taiwan to represent Mainland China or to be an independent nation as a threat that could provoke a military response.

Thrown out of the UN, Taiwan is left with an indistinct international status and finds itself in diplomatic isolation. China urges the international community to honor the One China Policy by treating Taiwan as a province of China rather than an autonomous nation. As a result, international organizations such as the World Trade Organization or the International Olympic Committee require Taiwan to participate as ‘Chinese Taipei’.

The United States is one of many countries supporting the One China Policy. Yet, at the same time, the US is Taiwan’s most important security ally – ironically enough with a special emphasis on protection from China – and one of its largest trade partners. The vague American stance on Taiwan’s status is highly strategic, meant to enable the reaping of the fruits from relations with both China and Taiwan. Even though this approach is morally questionable, experts argue that it has successfully helped prevent a military confrontation ever since the 1970s. Now enters Donald Trump!

The infamous phone-call between Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump was the first formal contact between the US and Taiwan in roughly 40 years. Despite US-Taiwan defense and trade deals, American presidents have traditionally shown respect for the One China Policy by not engaging in formal contact with Taiwanese leaders. Naturally, Trump’s choice not to follow this tradition fueled suspicion about the sincerity of the US stance on the One China Policy.

The international attention and Chinese protest following the phone call can on first sight seem like the political version of a high school drama – Trump asking Tsai Ing-wen to prom when Xi Jinping has already bought his outfit to match Trump’s bow-tie. However, US contact with a pro-independence Taiwanese president is in fact highly provocative.

On his Twitter account Trump stated that it is… “[i]nteresting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” Obviously, he is right about the approach being inconsistent. However, the consistently inconsistent strategy of the US is the foundation of its functioning relations with China and Taiwan. Donald Trump is opening a can of worms by pinpointing this irony in order to justify what many consider a political misstep on his part.

Long before the provocative phone call had caught international attention, all eyes were on Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. Her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the elections against the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT). Under KMT rule, tensions between China and Taiwan relaxed, but Tsai Ing-wen considers independence to be the long-term objective. This is obviously an irritation for Beijing. Meanwhile, public support for independence is rising in Taiwan. According to an opinion poll from 2015, a growing number of citizens consider themselves Taiwanese (59%) as opposed to Chinese (3%) or both (34%). The DPP’s electoral win reflects these sentiments.

Donald Trump should have considered that the election of a pro-independence Taiwanese leader in itself is a major thorn in the side of President Xi Jinping. As pro-independence sentiments are growing, continuing peace between Taiwan and China is at risk even without the US getting involved and antagonizing Beijing even further. The ungraceful meddling in the American strategy of ambiguity puts Sino-American relations at risk as well. Luckily, Trump can rely on his carefully selected advisors, saving this delicate situation with elegance and sophistication such as “If China doesn’t like it, screw ‘em”.

An assertive dialogue like this is a dangerous way to play the game, and it is debatable whether Trump accepted Tsai’s call knowing its implications. Is this his version of strategic ambiguity – favoring ambiguity over strategy – or was the accepted call simply a political misstep? In his first contact with President Xi Jinping, Trump in fact agreed to honor the One China Policy, putting Beijing’s concerns at ease and US policy back on track, perhaps admitting to a political error.

The strategy of ambiguity is certainly not a solution for determining the uncertain status of Taiwan, but it has undoubtedly been a contributing factor in avoiding military confrontation. The American stance is morally questionable, considering Taiwan’s growing desire for independence. However, choosing one side over the other would mean the end of a precarious but peaceful status quo. It remains to be seen if Donald Trump can restrain his impulsiveness in favor of international stability.

Georgia de Leeuw

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