The staggering incompetence of Donald Trump’s future administration was exposed this week when he blindly stumbled into a diplomatic row with America’s greatest adversary before even having stepped into the Oval Office. The President-Elect, once again demonstrating his cluelessness when it comes to international issues, accepted a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president, eliciting a sharply worded criticism from China. This sparked a debate over whether Trump was about to overturn forty years of US foreign policy with regard to the status of Taiwan.
But this was not the debate that needs having. The US is particularly averse to overturning long-term foreign policy positions. There has been extraordinary consensus between Republicans and Democrats in the modern era on foreign policy. Questionable support for states like Israel and Saudi Arabia is practically a given. President Obama has been perhaps the boldest of recent presidents in overturning US foreign policy orthodoxy, sensibly bringing Cuba and Iran in from the cold to much panic and hysteria. Could Donald Trump be about overturn the ‘One China’ policy and accept the statehood of Taiwan? More importantly, should he?
First: a potted history lesson.
Taiwan is what remains of the former Chinese state that was overthrown by the Chinese Communist Party in China’s mid-twentieth-century revolution. Thus, its official name is not actually Taiwan, the name of the island itself, but The Republic of China (not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland). Now a global business hub and the fifth largest economy in Asia, despite a population of only twenty-three million, Taiwan also boasts a strong and vibrant democracy. In virtually all senses you could imagine, it’s a remarkable development success story and a prosperous, vibrate and just society comparable with many Western nations.
When the Communist Party swept to power in China in 1950, two million refugees, mainly from the old guard of China’s former government, fled to Taiwan. Relations between the two have, predictable, been frosty ever since, with China maintaining a claim of sovereignty and condemning Taiwan as a rebel state. China’s veto-wielding position on the UN Security Council has ensured Taiwan could never gain a seat at the table. A recent trade deal and unofficial exchange of words between president and premier had indicated a slight thaw in relations, but this was largely reversed after Taiwanese voters punished the incumbent government at the ballot box over fears of Chinese influence and brought to power the considerably more pro-independence Tsai Ing-Wen. She’s the current president who grabbed the opportunity to garner legitimacy from an incoherent soon-to-be US administration, and hastily placed a phone call that she knew would anger her mainland foes.
The ‘One China’ policy has been a mainstay of American foreign relations since 1979, when the US established diplomatic relations with China and severed ties with Taiwan at Beijing’s insistence. Obviously, this policy falls under the ‘don’t rock the boat’ school of diplomatic thought. But given the relationship between the US and China, does this policy make any sense?
We must first ask ourselves what the consequences of an American endorsement would be, both for Taiwan and for US-China relations. The situation for Taiwan on the global stage would be barely changed; China’s veto on the Security Council would mean they still could not achieve legitimate statehood and their relationship with Taiwan would remain unchanged – frosty, but non-confrontational. China would no doubt kick up a fuss, as they have done over this mere phone call, but that would probably only last until the next US-China diplomatic spat, which are frequent, short-lived and usually of little consequence as the two great powers continue to jostle for supremacy in a globalized world. Mutual economic reliance between the two great powers ensures that tense relations are unlikely to spill over into genuine warfare, or even policies that might damage trade. The US-Taiwan relationship would benefit from the opening of formal embassies, the building of diplomatic relations and, presumably, improved cross-cultural and business links.
Given their frosty, critical and even confrontational relationship, it’s difficult to reconcile the ‘One China’ policy with the rest of US policy regarding China. Failing to endorse Taiwan runs counter to the series of deliberate verbal provocations of China from successive US administrations, from meetings with the Dalai Lama to lambasting China over state-sponsored hacking. China’s response has been similar, often characterized by stiff rebuttals, more hacking, and the remarkably childish ‘stairgate snub’. Donald Trump railing against cheap Chinese imports, trade tariffs and currency devaluations fits this continued pattern, albeit in shoutier terms. While the US’s “One China” policy officially endorses a united China, the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense as their largest weapons supplier belies the blatant agenda of protecting Taiwan from Chinese attack. A stated policy is one thing, but actions speak much louder. Given the US’s none-to-subtle commitment to the protection of Taiwan, failing to recognise its legitimacy is next to pointless.
Of course if building cordial relations with China was the objective, acquiescing to questionable territorial claims would make perfect sense. But this is totally inconsistent with the ongoing South China Sea territorial dispute, where the US has expended considerable diplomatic energy and even military resources protecting Asian allies from China’s fervent – and illegitimate, as ruled by a UN tribunal – claims to territorial waters and island territories. If meddling in these affairs of territorial legitimacy is a crucial US foreign policy objective, recognising the independence of an established democratic and economically developed ally with significant trade ties to the US must also be.
Removing incoherence from foreign policy is important. Strong foreign policy characterises how a state portrays itself; this is how countries draw legitimacy that boosts their position on the international stage. The US’s claim to be a protector of human rights and global security, for example, has taken an enormous battering after the Iraq War, for example. The “One China” policy is incoherent with other US positions, but more importantly, it is transparent rhetoric that fails to mask the blatantly obvious; the US has always supported an independent Taiwan and continues to do so. If Donald Trump changes US policy to support Taiwanese sovereignty, apart from a diplomatic tantrum from China, very little will change. But if his phone call gaffe is anything to go by, his presidency will reside over greater US incoherence, not less.