“When two elephants fight against each other, the grass always suffers,” said Yu-Fang Lin of the National Policy Foundation, a Taiwan-based think tank, in an interview with the Washington Times. He was talking about the famous phone call between Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump on Dec. 2. If the U.S. and China get into a military confrontation, Lin suggested, it is Taiwan that will be crushed.
The Chinese Communist regime was outraged by that phone call, the first direct conversation between an official of the Taiwan government and an American president or president-elect in almost four decades, but it kept its fury in check.
Beijing made an official complaint to Washington, but China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the call as a “petty trick” by Taiwan. The Chinese leaders, as puzzled as everybody else by the Trump phenomenon, were soft-pedaling the issue and hoping against hope that the president-elect wasn’t looking for a fight.
The alternative was just too frightening to contemplate. Yu-Fang Lin called it the “madman” strategy: Trump making himself “appear to be very dangerous and hostile and very unpredictable to scare the (Chinese) leaders” into concessions on issues. Within days, however, Trump gave Lin’s theory wings.
In an interview on Fox News last Sunday, the president-elect threatened to destroy the entire foundation on which U.S.-Chinese relations have been based since 1979. “I don’t see 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.”
The rabidly nationalist Global Times, a tabloid attack dog linked to the Chinese Communist Party, said Trump was “as ignorant as a child.” The official response was more polite, but equally severe.
“The Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and involves China’s core interests,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “If (the ‘One China’ principle) is interfered with or damaged, then the healthy development of China-U.S. relations and bilateral co-operation in important areas is out of the question.”
The key phrase here is “out of the question.” If Trump is going to play the “madman” card, then China will not negotiate anything. And if he urges Taiwan along the road to formal independence, then (as the Global Times put it) China may have to consider arming America’s enemies or taking back Taiwan by force.
The “One China” policy dates to 1979, when the United States broke its formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and transferred them to the People’s Republic of China. It was an “agreeable fiction” that allowed Washington to have its cake and eat it too.
In terms of both trade and military strategy, it was far more important for Washington to have diplomatic relations with China (current population 1.3 billion) than with Taiwan (22 million). However, it was politically impossible for the U.S. to just abandon the Taiwan regime, which it had backed in the Chinese civil war and continued to support after that regime lost the war and retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949.
And so the “One China” policy. Everybody agreed that China could not be divided, but Taiwan could keep its de facto independence so long as it accepted that China must one day be reunited. The United States would break diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but could go on trading with it and even selling it arms. And everybody lived happily ever after, more or less.
China bent over backwards to get this deal, because at the time it was still a very poor country trying to open up trade ties with the West, and it was also mired in a military confrontation with the old Soviet Union. That confrontation is long over and China is no longer poor, but it has meticulously observed the terms of the deal for 37 years. Now Trump is threatening to cancel the deal if he cannot get better terms from Beijing.
Threatening to cancel a deal if he can’t get better terms may have worked for Trump in business, but it’s not just money at stake here. It’s Chinese territory, the very notion of national unity, “core interests,” as Beijing puts it. The Chinese regime won’t yield on this because it can’t, and if Trump pursues his “madman” strategy we are all in for a rough time.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.