US-China relations: Stormy days ahead

November 19, 2018 15:02
The recently concluded US-China diplomatic and security dialogue revealed the depth of the differences separating the two countries, with issues ranging from the South China Sea to Taiwan. Photo: Reuters

A reported decision by China and the United States for negotiators to meet in Buenos Aires ahead of a Dec. 1 summit between President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump suggests that the two sides feel that a trade accord may be within reach.

Xi and Trump will attend the G20 summit in Argentina from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1, after which a bilateral summit is planned, most probably immediately after the G20 event. Trump had previously said that the Chinese had made concessions that are “very complete,” with only a few things left out but “we’ll probably get them, too.” So the hope is that intensified negotiations in the run-up to the US-China summit will result in an accord.

But while a truce may be called to the trade war, much more profound differences will remain, which will need to be faced sooner or later. Next month, the United States and China will mark the 40th anniversary of their announcement in 1978 that they will establish diplomatic relations on Jan. 1, 1979. How this anniversary is marked will be analyzed by political commentators worldwide studying the state of the relationship.

The recently concluded US-China diplomatic and security dialogue revealed the depth of the differences separating the two countries, with issues ranging from the South China Sea to Taiwan.

Significantly, 40 years ago the United States broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan to establish ties with Beijing. Today, Washington excoriates countries such as El Salvador for doing the same thing, and accuses China of constraining Taiwan’s international space.

Similarly, while 40 years ago the United States promised to have only "unofficial" relations with Taiwan, the officiality of the relationship has been rising over the years. The Trump administration is considering such steps as sending cabinet members to visit Taiwan and marine guards to protect the “unofficial” embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan.

The United States made it clear in the Taiwan Relations Act, adopted unilaterally in April 1979, four months after the establishment of diplomatic relations, that “the United States' decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

In 2005, China enacted the Anti-Secession Law, which states explicitly that the law was formulated “for the purpose of opposing and checking Taiwan’s secession from China.” That law, passed by the Chinese national legislature on March 15, gave the Chinese government the authority to “employ non-peaceful means for the purpose of opposing and checking Taiwan's secession from China.”

Given that China has indicated through its words and actions that the future of Taiwan may not be determined by peaceful means, it can be argued that the basis for US-China diplomatic relations no longer exists.

But such an interpretation would be extreme, and highly unlikely. After all, China has been transformed since the 1970s, when it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today, it is the world’s second largest economy, and already a global power. It is the world’s biggest trading nation.

If the US were to cut off relations with China, it would be isolating not China but itself. No other country would join the US in such an action.

Of course, China points out, accurately, that it never acquiesced to the Taiwan Relations Act, which is a US domestic law. As such, it cannot bind China. In fact, ever since 1979, Beijing has been calling on Washington to repeal the law, precisely on the ground that it is inconsistent with the US-China normalization communique agreed to by the Carter Administration.

President Jimmy Carter promised that he would interpret the law to make it consistent with the communique. But he could not bind his successors.

Since 1979, there have been many ups and downs in the relationship. In 1989, ten years after normalization, the Tiananmen Square military crackdown occurred, which saw relations nosedive. In 1999 came the accidental American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, part of a NATO campaign against Serbian forces occupying Kosovo, triggering anti-American protests across China.

The year 2009 was relatively peaceful. The 30th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations was marked primarily by a seminar in Beijing attended by retired officials, including former US president Jimmy Carter, and Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, all former national security advisers.

Hu Jintao, China’s president at the time, was also present, but not his American counterpart, George W. Bush, who was winding down his presidency to make way for Barack Obama the following week.

It is likely that the 40th anniversary will again be stormy.

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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.