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Worldview: Chat with Taiwan leader stokes fears of Trump crossing Chinese red lines

BEIJING - What does Donald Trump want? Chinese foreign policy experts are scrambling for an answer to this question after the president-elect's precedent-breaking phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which rattled the Beijing leadership and the region.

BEIJING - What does Donald Trump want?

Chinese foreign policy experts are scrambling for an answer to this question after the president-elect's precedent-breaking phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which rattled the Beijing leadership and the region.

Their uncertainty is so great that a visiting American is grilled at every meeting about whether Trump was just trying to signal he's a tough guy, or whether he really wanted to totally upend U.S.-Chinese relations.

I have no more idea about Trump's plans than they do. But what's clear after meeting prominent academics and think tankers in Beijing is how unnerved they are by Trump's unpredictable behavior. I was repeatedly told that ill-considered Trump moves on Taiwan - which China considers the most sensitive issue between our two countries - could spark a military confrontation.

"This is a wake up call," says Wang Dong, a senior official at the Pangoal Institution, a new think tank that focuses on international issues. "There has been too much wishful thinking that [Trump] is a businessman and pragmatic and wants to make a deal." Adds Li Juqian, associate dean at the International Law School, "Trump is a businessman, but he is also a president. He may act without caution and he can launch a war."

So why has a single phone call caused such a hullabaloo?

A little history is needed. When the Chinese communists defeated China's Nationalist government in 1949, the Nationalist leaders fled to the offshore island of Taiwan and set up a government. In 1979, seven years after Richard Nixon's breakthrough visit to China, the United States switched its recognition from the Taiwan government to the Beijing government. Most other governments did likewise.

Since then no American president or president-elect is known to have spoken with a Taiwanese president, although Washington maintains close informal ties with Taiwan's democratically elected leaders. Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province, but has formal understandings with Washington that it won't forcibly retake the island but will seek to negotiate a solution. The United States sells Taiwan defensive arms; in 1996, when tensions flared between Taiwan and Beijing, Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait.

Yet the Taiwan issue had been on the back burner in recent years; Trump railed during the campaign about unfair Chinese trade practices but not about the island. Indeed, within Chinese foreign policy establishment circles, there was some sentiment in favor of candidate Trump because he had no interest in human rights and seemed skeptical about U.S. alliances in Asia.

Ultimately, I'm told, the government preferred Hillary Clinton, despite her human rights advocacy and tough attitude toward China, because it was more familiar with her and her foreign policy advisers. "Trump was a black box, who could be better or worse, and represented uncertainty," one think tanker told me.

Now Trump's phone talk with Taiwan's president - whose party considers Taiwan to be a separate, sovereign country - has stoked immense uncertainty about whether he intends to cross two of the Beijing regime's most sensitive Taiwan red lines.

Does he mean to upgrade relations with Taiwan, perhaps elevating Taiwan's cultural office in New York to something closer to embassy status? Or, will he send senior advisers to greet Tsai - or even meet her himself - if she's granted permission to stop over in the United States on her way to Central America in early January before Trump takes office.

Either move is described here as crossing a Chinese government red line. There is a fear that Trump, or his pro-Taiwan advisers, may not realize how sensitive the regime is on the Taiwan issue and the outrage it can stir from the Chinese public.

Of course, Trump the tweeter may have little patience with such warnings. And he may be misled by the Chinese government's relatively mild response to the Taiwan phone call. Chinese analysts ascribe this response to a government hope that Trump will moderate his position on Taiwan once he formally takes office.

"What does he want? We can't yet draw a conclusion," says An Gang, editor of World Affairs Fortnightly. "So the Chinese government has to keep a wait-and-see attitude. This provides an opportunity for Trump to cool down."

But some prominent Chinese intellectuals are already calling for Beijing to take a much harsher position toward the incoming Trump administration. "I think this time the Chinese response is too soft," says Yan Xuetong, a dean at Tsinghua University. "If China moved some troops as a warning it would be safer.

"Many [Chinese] will be disappointed with China's response," he went on. "If it is continued, things will become worse. Trump will escalate."

And so, before Trump even comes to office, a debate is bubbling here over whether the Chinese government must prepare to react harshly if Trump ups the ante on Taiwan. Perhaps his phone call was merely a signal that he will be tough on trade talks. But perhaps he doesn't realize the degree of neuralgia that the Taiwan issue triggers in Beijing.

Right now it doesn't even appear that the Chinese government has a good direct channel of communications to the Trump team. Let's hope that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstead, Trump's China-savvy choice as ambassador to Beijing, gets confirmed soon and has the president's ear on Taiwan.

This is an issue that must be skillfully handled in the context of a broader policy for the whole region, including the need for Beijing's cooperation on North Korea. Otherwise, the Taiwan issue could spark the first big foreign policy crisis of the Trump presidency.