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10 January 2017
A good price for the ‘One China’ policy?

Photo: Gage Skidmore

The US President-elect’s wrong-footed approach to negotiating with China will deliver the opposite outcome he is aiming for, Jinghan Zeng writes.

During an interview with Fox News earlier this week President-elect Donald Trump astonished the world by saying the US was not necessarily bound by the ’One China’ policy. The US has adhered to this policy, which acknowledges that there is only one state called China and Taiwan is a part of that China, since 1972 following President Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong.

Trump’s comments immediately become the hot topic of China’s social media. Not surprisingly, Chinese nationalists are not happy with the pronouncement. An editorial in the notoriously nationalistic and outspoken Global Times led the response saying, “The One China policy is not for selling.” It argues that “Trump thinks that everything can be valued and, as long as his leverage is strong enough, he can sell or buy. If a price can be put on the US Constitution, will the American people sell their country’s constitution and implement the political systems of Saudi Arabia or Singapore?”

Trump’s most recent comments about Taiwan are not isolated. They follow his controversial phone call with Tsai Ing-wen and his tweet calling her “the President of Taiwan”. This obviously went against the core principle of the ‘One China’ policy. During his interview with Fox, Trump released further details of his call with Tsai. This call was not planned long in advance – Trump said he heard the call would take place one or two hours beforehand. Thus, it was not planned well in advance as some of his advisors suggest.

Again, this shows that Trump does not understand the complexities of Chinese politics. While Trump’s calculation may be to force China into making more compromises during Sino-US trade negotiations by threatening the continuity of the ‘One China’ policy, this is a risky move that may potentially threaten world peace. The issue of Taiwan lies at the centre of China’s core interests. It represents a non-negotiable line for Beijing as it is closely linked with the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. In past decades, the party has portrayed itself as the only force capable of defending China’s national unity and sovereignty. If Beijing loses Taiwan, its rule might be overthrown by angry nationalists. Thus, the Beijing government is willing to do whatever it takes – including war – to prevent Taiwan’s independence.

Some might argue that there is a rationale behind Trump’s wishful thinking: if Taiwan is so important to China, Beijing should pay a higher price for the US ascribing to the ‘One China’ policy.

Even if this is the case, Trump is doing it the wrong way. Pressuring Chinese leaders to compromise with the US in public will only end up restricting their ability to do so. To make a deal out of this, Trump needs to negotiate with Beijing quietly. The traditional Chinese philosophy prefers a low-profile approach to gain benefits. Without the scrutiny of China’s domestic nationalism, Beijing is much more likely to compromise for diplomacy.

Conversely, Trump’s high-profile approach will only politicise the trade issue and bring it to the forefront of popular attention in China, leaving Beijing little room to make compromises. Indeed, the Chinese government has already been blamed for its “weak” response to Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen on Chinese social media. Trump’s open threat over the ‘One China’ policy will only make it harder to strike a good deal with China.

This article was originally published on Policy Forum 

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