China problem: How to deal with US in final weeks of Trump era

December 10, 2020 06:00
Trump administration terminated five cultural exchange programs with China. Photo: Reuters

Last weekend, the Trump administration terminated five cultural exchange programs with China, calling them “soft power propaganda tools” and the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by saying that the United States should not see everyone as spies.

Clearly, the Trump administration wants to leave the incoming Biden administration an anti-China legacy. In fact, on Dec. 6, Global Times published an article written by its editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, saying that China was “fully prepared, including militarily, for any final Trump madness.”

In fact, there seems to be a division within China now as to how to deal with the United States in the final weeks of the Trump administration.

“Some Chinese people think it is not worthwhile to wrangle with the team now and suggest it is better to be tolerant of it,” Hu wrote. “Such a strategy is dangerous. Once they believe we will exercise patience no matter what happens, they will definitely become insatiable and more unscrupulous. They will carry out moves that will severely jeopardize China’s national interests, setting up a demonstration and even kidnapping the future agenda of the incoming Joe Biden administration.”

This is revealing, Since the “Chinese people” have no say in government and party affairs, this must mean that there is a division at the highest levels in China.

Such a revelation will no doubt affect the behavior of the Trump administration in its final days. And, whatever its actions and China’s reactions, it means that the Biden administration will be in a sense a captive of what decisions are made in the White House and in Zhongnanhai before January 20, when Biden assumes the presidency. So Biden and his top officials have to decide before then what its policy will be vis-à-vis China.

The president-elect has said that his administration would review existing agreements with China before making a decision on what to do. But this may be a luxury that the new administration cannot afford. It will have to decide before January 20 what the China policy of the United States will be.

Since the most sensitive issue facing the United States and China is the question of Taiwan, it means the new administration must decide before the change in presidency what the new president is going to do.

So far, the United States has attempted to straddle two boats at the same time: maintain official relations with China and “unofficial,” relations with the people of Taiwan.

Of course, selling weapons to Taiwan has never been entirely “unofficial,” since this is normally done only between governments. But the United States can maintain that this is something that it had made clear to China before relations were normalized on January 1, 1979. China’s then paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, had agreed, on condition that the two governments held further discussions on this issue after normalization.

Such discussions resulted in a communique in August 1982, in which China reiterated its position that the question of Taiwan is China’s internal affair and that its fundamental policy is one of striving for peaceful reunification.

The United States, bearing in mind the Chinese statements, asserted that it “does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”

The two governments also recognized that the question was “rooted in history” and that they would “make every effort to adopt measures and create conditions conducive to the thorough settlement of this issue.”

Both governments have taken actions since 1982 that are difficult to reconcile with their stated policies, with Washington continuing to sell arms 38 years later despite its supposed intention not to carry out “a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan” and Beijing enacting a law in 2005 giving itself the right to “employ non-peaceful means” despite its fundamental policy of peace.

In short, the new president, Joe Biden, will have to decide if the United States will change its policy – as appears to be the intent of the Trump administration – to one of greater officiality in its relations with Taiwan and run the risk that China will not accept such a new deal.

And, the biggest question of all: if China should resort to “non-peaceful means,” what will Washington’s position be?

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