Catching up on old posting again, this time a piece for the Telegraph after Trump’s Taiwan telephone call and the implications on the relationship for China. Not a title I would have chosen if I am honest.
Donald Trump’s assault on the basic assumptions of international relations continues. His latest broadside has struck China, with the President-elect refusing to bend to the “one China” policy which has governed the US-China relationship since President Nixon visited Mao Zedong in the 1970s. Yet while this challenge is fraught with risks of miscalculation, it also casts a light on the interesting potential that a President Trump administration offers – one where previously ossified assumptions that underlie international relations can no longer can be taken for granted.
The current world order is one that favours China. Sitting in Beijing last year, I watched as one of the senior figures in the party happily recounted the scene at September 2015’s 70th anniversary celebrations to commemorate the end of the Second World War. Looking wistfully into the distance, he recounted how blue the skies were that day and how impressive China’s mighty army looked. Aligned next to him were various world leaders eager to highlight the proximity of their relationship with Beijing. For China, a country that has taken full advantage of globalisation and its massive population to turn itself into the world’s factory, the world order is working very well.
Consequently, the arrival of Donald Trump, a leader talking of scrapping trade treaties and offering a newly assertive America, is deeply troublesome. China’s rise in the world under the shadow of a western-led liberal order focused on open markets had been a steady one. it was one in which China often rejected some of the same open principles that it was able to take advantage of in other markets. While it is relatively easy for Chinese companies to seek out opportunities in western markets, it is often nowhere near as easy for western companies to go into China.
On the geopolitical stage, China has also managed to establish a consensus that asserts its advantages and interests, something most clearly on display with the international community’s relations with Taiwan. While many welcome relations with Taiwan, it is very much on Beijing’s terms. Taiwanese Embassies around the world are called “Representative Offices” while its officials are kept out of international institutions. Yet at the same time, the United States is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to protect any assault on Taiwanese democracy. The most visible sign of this is arms sales, whereby the United States continues to provide the weaponry to ensure that Taipei is able to protect itself from an attack from the mainland.
And yet, every time the arms sales are advanced, a delicate diplomatic dance is undertaken whereby Beijing complains, the United States refuses to bend, undertakes the arms transfers yet continues to acknowledge the “one china” policy. These past few weeks have started to upend the delicate diplomatic dance that underlies this transaction.
Talking to people in Beijing last week, the overriding sense from President-elect Trump’s statements was one of confusion. Still unclear as to how much his commentary should be taken seriously, Beijing saw him reaching out through the appointment of a new Ambassador who had a personal history with President Xi as well as through messages sent through former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Yet at the same time, he spoke the language of confrontation through his actions with Taipei and running commentary through interviews and Twitter. Beijing is now uncertain where it stands, and has begun to realize that the assumptions that underlay the world order that it was quietly riding to steady growth are increasingly going to be challenged.
It is entirely unclear how this is going to play out. This in many ways is probably President-elect Trump’s intent, aiming to establish a new bargaining point in negotiations with China. Yet the danger is in miscalculation. The Taiwan question for China is not one of international relations, but rather a domestic one. Consequently, the sort of horse-trading that might be possible in other fields will be harder if not impossible.
No doubt this has been considered to some degree in Trump Tower, but it is not clear that these messages are getting to Beijing in the manner they are supposed to. If Donald Trump has miscalculated, it could mean a confrontation between two of world’s superpowers – with consequences that will impact us all.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)