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Trump's foreign policy -- an elephant in a china shop?

The Taiwanese people should not be a bargaining chip for trade deals

We are one month away from U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration, and the world is still trying to figure out what the nation's foreign policy will look like under the eccentric and unpredictable new leader.

For Asia, the answer is shaping up. Trump looks increasingly inclined not only to adopt a hawkish line against China, but has also vowed a Quixotic attempt at revolutionizing the four-decades-long protocol known as the "one China" policy, which is at the foundation of China's diplomatic relations with not only the U.S. but practically every other country.

In East Asia, despite frequent feuds and squabbles, a finely-tuned and delicate balance has been painstakingly kept between an assertively expanding China and the U.S.-led coalition of nations trying to contain it. The "one China" policy counts as one of the red lines not to cross.

It is in this complex and delicately balanced region that Trump's hard-hitting and improvising way has left many in the diplomatic community restless, as if watching an elephant stampeding full speed into a china shop, oblivious to why he was not supposed to break a few items. Following Trump's Dec. 2 phone call with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and Trump's statement that he will not be bound by the "One China" policy, the world could only hold its breath in anticipation of Beijing's reaction.

In fact, Trump's own grasp of the situation notwithstanding, it turned out that his phone contact with Taiwan was not accidental. It was a pre-arranged coup staged by the lobby of pro-Taiwan "China hawks" from the right wing of the Republican Party. Represented among others by former senator Bob Dole and such neocons as former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, this group has come out of the shadow, having succeeded in making itself heard by the new president-elect. Dole himself is reported to have lobbied the president-elect on Taiwan's behalf. Bolton is also known to have visited with Ms. Tsai in Taiwan before her election as president.

Of course, it is not a problem to respond with toughness to China's alleged unfair trade practices, to its belligerent, bullying behavior in the South China Sea, or to its many other shortcomings. If smartly executed, such toughness is even welcomed in East Asia, where America's resolve in facing an assertive China is being questioned.

Taiwan's plight

The "one China" policy centers around Taiwan's ambiguous status. The conservative authors of Trump's defiant China policy share a strong sympathy for Taiwan, a de facto autonomous and democratic entity with a population of 24 million, which has been shunned by the international community for four decades without any sound reason other than to avoid offending China. Despite being one of the most democratically advanced economies in Asia, the free and prosperous island has been excluded from most international organizations, starting with the U.N., due to Chinese pressure.

Trump Tower in New York (Photo by Makoto Okada).

Humiliated by this international quarantine, the Taiwanese generally welcomed Trump's publicized phone call with their president as an opportunity to force the international community to take a hard look at Taiwan's situation and, hopefully, as a breakthrough.

Unfortunately, diplomacy is too often hypocritical in the name of realpolitik, which dictates that any country wishing to have a normal relationship with the world's second-largest economy has to stick to the "one China" policy, like it or not.

China's obsession

In a TV interview earlier this month, Trump said "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." 

Being born in Taiwan, I was uncomfortable watching Trump suggest using the "one China" policy as a bargaining chip for eventual Chinese concessions on trade. Besides further infuriating Beijing, this suggestion constitutes an affront to the Taiwanese people, whose fate Trump thinks he can arbitrarily trade with China.

This cavalier "transactional" attitude may also worry countries like Japan. If Trump could use Taiwan's fate as a bargaining chip with China, why not do the same with the no less sensitive Senkaku/Diaoyu islands feud between Japan and China?

Known for disliking expert counsel and professional information from U.S. intelligence agencies and the state department, Trump's style sets the stage for the risk of a novice U.S. president wielding his formidable diplomatic and military might on national security issues without adequate professional advice, disregarding internationally established rules and ignoring diplomatic sensitivities.

As for East Asia, this style may result in Trump pushing China too far, too hard and too fast at its most sensitive spot and provoking Beijing into taking countermeasures, with disastrous consequences.

China's options

Despite its anger at Trump's call with Tsai, the Chinese leadership appears to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude, hoping that once sworn in, the new president will settle into a more realistic approach.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that Beijing cannot afford to allow the U.S., with its huge influence on other countries, to set a precedent. China does have a record of punishing trade partners who encroach on its "core interests." France, for one, shed a few feathers in 2008 after condemning Chinese repression in Tibet. For their insolence, the French suffered two years of fierce Chinese antipathy, diplomatic neglect and trade reprisals.

Beijing seems to have started taking preemptive steps in anticipation of bumpier relations with the U.S. and of a stronger American presence in Asia. For example, it has sent a thinly veiled warning to Southeast Asian countries by getting tough with Singapore, a country that maintains close defense ties with the U.S. and Taiwan.

In case the new U.S. administration persists in trashing the "one China" policy, there are several retaliatory measures, economic as well as geopolitical, to which China could resort without tapping the last resort: military action in the Taiwan Strait.

One such countermeasure would be for China to stop its lukewarm cooperation with the U.S. at the U.N. to craft sanctions against saber-rattling North Korea. It could also put a hold on its cooperation with Washington on various other international issues, including the Iran nuclear deal and anti-terrorism efforts. China could also make life miserable for Taiwan, whose economy is largely dependent on the mainland.

If Trump can present a well-defined and principled policy on China and Asia, while containing China's belligerent expansion, it would be good news for America's friends in East Asia. Coherence, toughness and an unwavering resolve from the U.S., supported by adequate naval capabilities, will be key.

The hardest part will be for the new president to understand the need to implement this policy with restraint and respect, avoiding unnecessary and counterproductive provocation of China that might put Taiwan and the rest of Asia in harm's way.

In Europe, Trump's diplomacy is heading for a new era of entente cordiale with Russia. Hopefully, this approach may apply one day in Asia vis-a-vis China, when the necessary initial shouting match is over.

Yo-Jung Chen is a former French diplomat. Born in Taiwan, he became a French citizen before entering the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was posted in Tokyo, Singapore and Beijing.

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