20 January 2019
President elect Donald Trump seems to be holding the overall US-China relationship hostage to trade issues. Photo: Reuters
President elect Donald Trump seems to be holding the overall US-China relationship hostage to trade issues. Photo: Reuters

As Trump blows hot and cold, China tries to stay calm

Despite the uproar in the United States over President-elect Donald Trump’s precedent-shattering Dec. 2 phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, the Chinese government has been restrained.

On Sunday, Trump went further and publicly questioned the need for the US to continue its “one China” policy, adopted since the 1970s.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s initial response to the phone call was that it had “noted the report” and had “lodged solemn representations” with the US.

But there were no charges of bad faith or of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”.

However, when asked the same day about the possibility that the US Congress might authorize military exchanges between Taiwan and American officials, the Chinese reaction was different.

The foreign ministry spokesman said that China was “severely concerned” about the report – much harsher than having merely “noted the report”.

Moreover, the spokesman said the Chinese side “urges the US to abide by the one-China policy and principles of the three joint communiqués, deal with the Taiwan question in a prudent manner, and avoid backsliding and damaging the larger interests of China-US relations”.

Clearly, China observes a distinction between Trump’s actions as a private citizen before his inauguration and those of the Obama administration or members of the US Congress.

In a Fox News Sunday interview, Trump went even further, saying, “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.”

He didn’t seem to realize that “one China” was the result of a deal made four decades ago, when the US and China established relations.

Now, it seems, he wants to renegotiate, asking China for trade concessions in return for keeping the “one China” policy, basically using the fate of Taiwan to strengthen America’s hand without regard for the wishes of the Taiwan people.

In attempting to reopen negotiations, Trump was unconsciously emulating the Chinese behavior of previous times.

China used to make the overall bilateral relationship hostage to one issue, Taiwan, and Trump appears to be doing a similar thing, holding the overall relationship hostage now to trade issues.

China used to blackmail the US by threatening non-cooperation on global strategic issues, such as Iran or Islamic State.

But Trump isn’t a geopolitical issues guy and such threats may not work as well.

Besides, China knows that it is in its own interests to deal with issues such as North Korea and climate change.

A Global Times commentary on Monday [Dec. 12] quoted scholar Li Haidong of the China Foreign Affairs University as saying: “Trump is a novice at dealing with diplomatic and international relations issues. His knowledge about Sino-US relations, particularly the Taiwan question, is very superficial.”

China seems inclined to give Trump time to learn.

Aside from the Global Times article, there had been no official response to Trump’s “one China” comments at the time of the writing of this article.

Trump last week provided China with reason to cheer by nominating Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad as his ambassador to China.

The governor first met Xi Jinping, China’s current president, more than 30 years ago when the young Chinese official visited Iowa on an agricultural mission and Governor Brandstad was serving his first term.

The two men had been in touch intermittently since then.

The appointment was warmly received in Beijing, with the foreign ministry hailing Brandstad as an “old friend of the Chinese people”.

The US ambassador, the spokesman said, “serves as an important bridge” linking the two governments and China welcomed “his greater contribution to the development of China-US relations”.

But Beijing made clear it wasn’t beholden to Trump by saying it would work with anyone designated as the American ambassador.

In the weeks before the inauguration, China will no doubt have to bear with other words and actions by the president-elect.

But it appears that Beijing prefers to wait and see what the Trump administration’s actual policies will be.

It will probably be confronted with conflicting and confusing facts. But China is supremely capable of interpreting facts to fit its own interests.

Thus, in the eight years of the Ma Ying-jeou administration before he was succeeded in May by Tsai Ing-wen, China never criticized Taiwan for buying American weapons.

Instead, on each occasion, it castigated the US for selling these weapons, even though Taiwan had requested them in the first place.

But, where the phone call was concerned, China decided to blame Tsai and let Trump off the hook.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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