Facing China: Policy Challenges for the Trump Administration in East Asia
As Donald J. Trump comes to power as the 45th president of the United States, he and his national security and foreign policy team will face significant challenges in dealing with a now-formidable and recently more assertive China. To a great extent, the problems they will encounter in dealing with China would confront any early twenty-first century US leader and are rooted in long-term developments that are largely beyond the influence of near-term policy choices. To some degree, the challenges are inherited from the Obama administration’s agenda, which is in key respects uncompleted or unsuccessful. In significant part, they have been made more difficult by Trump’s statements and actions, and perceptions of Trump in China and the region. These three-layered contexts shape the options and imperatives for US policy.
Much of what the United States should do to protect its national security and economic interests, promote provision of vital international public goods (from which the United States benefits), and advance principles that have long been major elements of US policy is relatively clear. Whether the Trump administration will follow that course is, at best, uncertain and, in some respects, seems unlikely. Two overarching areas of policy loom large in US relations with China, are highly consequential for East Asia, and, thus, require serious attention. Two polities along China’s periphery that have highly difficult relations with their neighbors and complicated problems of sovereignty loom as potential foci of crises and, thus, additional major concerns for US policy toward China under the new administration.
For regional security, the principal task is to reassure friends and allies in a worried region that the United States remains a reliable partner (albeit one that must depend on greater burden-sharing), and that it has the will and capacity to join regional states in deterring or resisting moves by China that threaten a long-durable postwar regional order of peace, stability, and openness. Here, the major challenge the United States faces has deep roots and a relatively strong trajectory. It stems from China’s long-term and ongoing rise in capabilities, relative to its neighbors and to the United States. Several decades of rapid economic growth and transformation have generated the resources for military modernization and expansion. A rising great power and incipient global power typically channels some of its new wealth into power. The imperative to increase martial capacity has been stronger in China, given the regime’s growing reliance on nationalism (rather than communism) for legitimacy, the central place in the national narrative assigned to the pre-revolution century-and-a-half of national humiliation through foreign encroachment, and more recent decades of sometimes-fraught relations between the People’s Republic and the Soviet Union, the United States, Japan, and other countries in Asia.
Especially under Xi Jinping, but with roots before his ascension, and more clearly since the crumbling of what had once been seen as Beijing’s formidable “charm offensive,” China increasingly has been perceived by its neighbors and the United States as more assertive, seeking a greater sphere of influence, and posing a growing threat to the status quo. Chinese talk of restoring the country to its rightful place as the dominant power in the region, or pointed reminders that China is a “big country” while its nervous neighbors are “small countries,” have been causes for worry. Of particular concern in recent years have been China’s moves to extend its control in contested areas in the South and East China seas.
The Obama administration sought to address these challenges with the “pivot” or “rebalance”—its signature Asia policy and one of its principal foreign policy undertakings, which promised to shift US military assets and foreign policy focus to the Western Pacific. At a more fine-grained level, the Obama administration: insisted that China (as well as other parties to maritime disputes in the region) observe the rules of international law, respect freedom of navigation, and handle disputes peacefully; cautioned Beijing (and reassured Tokyo) that the US-Japan security treaty extended to protecting the status quo of Japanese administration of the Senkaku Islands (in the face of mounting Chinese encroachment); supported the Philippines in the international arbitration proceedings it launched challenging China’s claim to rights over much of the South China Sea (and partly in response to China’s having seized the area around the previously mostly Philippines-controlled, disputed Scarborough Shoal); and undertook Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations, coupled with increasingly strong and specific policy statements, to challenge China’s massive island-building projects on several contested marine formations in the South China Sea that could serve as valuable assets for the Chinese military.
Among the difficulties facing the Trump administration, if it chooses to continue to pursue the US-interest-serving aims that animated Obama policy, is that the Obama administration left so much unaccomplished. At the end of Obama’s presidency, regional states were far from convinced that the United States was the reliable and secure partner that the administration sought to portray. Throughout the region, uncertainty about the durability and depth of US commitments remained. The pivot had brought no major increase in commitment of military resources, especially when measured against China’s growing prowess. The fast-unravelling prospects for congressional passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) cast grave doubt on the vital economic pillar supporting the pivot. Notwithstanding reassuring statements about Washington’s interpretation of the security pact, Japan’s qualms about the efficacy of US support in the face of a China that was becoming more assertive and nationalist (along with US support for Japan’s taking on a larger security role) helped to legitimate Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s push to loosen restraints on Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the constraints embodied in the so-called pacifist provision in Article 9 of Japan’s US-imposed postwar constitution.
Obama administration backing for the Philippines’ arbitration case became more problematic when a ruling resoundingly affirming Filipino positions was dismissed as a “mere scrap of paper” by the PRC (which had earlier denied that the tribunal had authority to decide the case), and when a new president in Manila turned sharply away from the United States, insulted Obama, and set aside the arbitration panel’s decision to negotiate amicably with China. This undercut a US narrative that would have folded the arbitration award into longer-running calls on China to follow international law and accept peaceful resolutions of disputes. So, too, the US response to China’s island-building had been too little and too late, inadequate to deter or curtail China’s actions, and, in the initial stages, muddled about the international legal point being made by the FON operations that sought to press China to follow international law.
Pre-inauguration emanations from Trump have dug a deeper hole. Campaign remarks suggesting that the United States under Trump could reduce its security commitments in the region unless allies and partners were willing to pay more, and indicating that the new president might regard with equanimity the prospect of Japan, South Korea, or others acquiring nuclear arms to substitute for diminished American guarantees have been costly. These musings not only further shook already shaky confidence across the region, they also risked strengthening arguments in China for greater assertiveness and self-confidence. Both among those in China who welcome the opportunities afforded by a Trump-led US turn away from the region, and among those who fear that anticipation of retrenchment would tempt China to overreach and imperil its own interests, the perception was that Trump’s victory likely would mean a diminished US role and a more rapid rise in Chinese influence. Trump’s early appointments to national security posts encouraged expectations that there would be a pivot away from the pivot—that is, away from Obama’s incompletely realized rebalance toward Asia and back toward the George W. Bush administration’s emphasis on the Middle East and jihadism.
Efforts to signal a commitment to stand firm against possible efforts by China to change the status quo in ways inimical to US interests will have to overcome still more expectations created in China and elsewhere in the region about the likely features of a Trump presidency. Trump’s expressions of admiration for authoritarian rulers—most notably Putin, but also the Tiananmen-era Chinese leadership and Asian dictators currently in power from Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev to North Korea’s Kim—are widely taken as a sign that a Trump will forego the human rights and pro-democracy values that provided a normative dimension to US alignments with many East Asian partners, and, thus, served to protect mutual interests against possible challenges by China. Trump’s image as a businessman, and the apparent insubstantiality of many of his foreign policy views, have fostered beliefs in China (and concerns elsewhere) that the “anti-China” elements in his rhetoric can be discounted, and that he will be willing to make “pragmatic” deals that can serve China’s strategic interests.
There is much work to be done if the Trump administration is to take the steps necessary to reassure allies, to shore up other regional states with interests that align—albeit more loosely—with US interests, and to deter or delay Chinese moves that can undermine the regional security order and long-standing rules that protect openness of trade and transit in the region. But significant, if likely incomplete, successes are not (yet) beyond reach for the new administration. Gaps and shortcomings in the Obama effort at rebalancing can still be addressed. Damage done by statements made and signals sent during Trump’s campaign and transition can be undone, given the now-quite-sophisticated understanding in Beijing and elsewhere in East Asia that, whatever presidential candidates may have said or done, US presidents often revert to more conventional policies toward China and regional security once they take office. Expectations in China about “Trump the dealmaker” or “Trump the isolationist” are shallowly rooted, and they coexist with very different concerns about “Trump the impetuous,” “Trump the promiser of a great (if still-over-the-horizon and likely-unachievable) expansion of the Navy,” and (most pervasively) “Trump the unknown quantity.” These also coexist with more sober and realist assessments that policy, even under Trump, is likely not to depart far from US interests.
As under Obama and his immediate predecessors, so, too, under Trump, the United States cannot stop the long-term trend of China’s rising absolute and relative power in the region. Containment is almost surely futile and efforts to achieve it are surely ill-advised. Although still well short of parity, China’s increased military capacities have already changed US calculations about the cost and feasibility of intervention in the asymmetric, China-favoring scenarios of potential conflict with China in East Asia.
Nonetheless, and assuming problems—largely internal ones—do not stall China’s rise, China’s accretion and exercise of greater influence over East Asia and undermining of the existing order can be slowed by policies under a Trump administration if they attend to key aims, including: restoring confidence among anxious allies and long-time partners in the region (most notably Japan, but Korea and others as well) by reaffirming the US commitment to formal treaty obligations and robust but informal security cooperation with non-treaty partners; building closer ties to Vietnam, the regional state with the greatest capacity and strongest inclination to counter Chinese efforts to dominate the South China Sea; trying to counter other regional states’ drift or, in the Philippines’s case, lurch from cooperation with the United States to hedging strategies and potential bandwagoning with China; and making clear, in word and deed, support for—and rejection of Chinese challenges to—the existing “rules of the game,” including the international legal regime favoring open seas (based on UNCLOS, which the United States should join as a matter of self-interest) and proscribing the use of non-peaceful means to address territorial and maritime disputes between China and its neighbors.
To dissuade or deter China from making more assertive use of its growing power, and to extend—perhaps for decades—the lifespan of what has been a relatively benign status quo for the region are gains not to be gainsaid. Achieving them likely will require an emphasis on cooperation, consultation, and communication with allies and partners, a strong foreign policy focus on East Asia, and a considerable degree of patience and a level of nuance that have not yet been on display from the incoming president and his most visible advisors.
For economic relations, the major policy challenges are: to protect US interests in a relatively open economic order in East Asia; to maintain (with adjustments) the US-China economic relationship that (despite its many problems) has been a foundation for stable and generally positive bilateral relations, and to resist the emergence of a situation in which regional states are so deeply dependent on, and integrated with, China—and so weakly linked to the United States—that they become unwilling or unable to adopt policies and take stands contrary to Chinese preferences that are at odds with US interests.
The issues are long-standing and in many respects intractable. They are rooted in tectonic global economic shifts, including: China’s success in pursuing a strategy of growth and development through international engagement, which has led to China’s rise to the top ranks globally—and a near-dominant position regionally—in GDP, trade, and foreign investment (primarily inbound, but increasingly outbound as well); and the emergence—facilitated by the WTO and regional trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties—of vast global supply and manufacturing chains in which China holds a pivotal place. As trading partners and foreign investors have complained for decades, China has adopted significant illiberal laws, policies, and practices in international trade, investment, and currency regulation, some of which run afoul of WTO and other legal limits, and some of which have inflicted significant economic harm on industrial sectors and social groups in partner countries, including the United States. State subsidies to Chinese industry, dumping by Chinese exporters, trade agreement-violating barriers to imports, selective enforcement of laws (or under-enforcement, particularly of intellectual property laws) in ways that favor Chinese firms over foreign competitors, state intervention to keep the renminbi exchange rate artificially low (or, more recently, sometimes to keep it from falling) all have been—at various times and to various degrees—among the items in China’s international economic policy toolkit. China is also widely, and plausibly, suspected of pursuing regional trade agreements, other international economic pacts and policies, and transnational investments by state enterprises as means to enhance China’s political leverage with partner states as well as (or even at odds with) China’s economic interests.
The Obama administration’s approach to these issues—particularly bilateral ones—included traditional, small-bore mechanisms of US economic policy, such as: raising complaints and concerns with China through the Security and Economic Dialogue and many other channels of bilateral engagement; threatening or bringing WTO cases against non-conforming Chinese practices; prohibiting a handful of Chinese purchases of US companies on national security grounds and deterring others; pursuing a generally pro-openness, US-style BIT with China; and pressuring China on especially sensitive issues, such as Chinese state-linked theft of commercially valuable intellectual property from US firms. The centerpiece of Obama’s economic policy toward East Asia, the crucial economic leg for the pivot, and a central feature of efforts to counterbalance a declining US economic stake (relative to China’s) in the region, was the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Obama also sought to push back against Chinese efforts to establish regional multilateral economic institutions—principally the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank—that could lay foundations for a rival, potentially more illiberal, Chinese-led regional economic order.
Here, too, the Trump administration inherits a problematic legacy of policies that reflected a sound understanding of US interests but fell short of achieving their objectives. If it pursues the same general aims (which appears far from certain), it faces a worsening environment on several fronts. Economic nationalism and illiberalism have been on the rise under Xi: China has adopted tougher national security restrictions on foreign investment (in part as a tit-for-tat response to perceived unfriendliness to Chinese bids to acquire US companies in sensitive sectors); policy responses to slower growth in China’s economy and a stock market crash have dampened hopes that China would move toward greater economic liberalism and acceptance of market outcomes at home and abroad; and foreign firms operating in China have grown more discontented with what they see as a policy-shaped environment that is more hostile to them and favorable to Chinese competitors, especially state-linked firms. WTO disputes that the United States has filed or joined against China have yielded mixed results and offered only modest relief. The much-anticipated US-China BIT has remained elusive, ever on the verge of completion. The Obama administration’s effort to dissuade allies in from joining China’s AIIB almost entirely failed amid Chinese assurances that the new bank and other China-led economic institutional initiatives would supplement, not challenge, established organs such as the World Bank and the IMF, which were inadequate to cope with current needs because the Obama administration had not secured congressional support for restructuring and funding increases.
Most visibly and most harmfully, the Obama administration failed to deliver on the TPP in the face of opposition in Congress, among the public, and from both major parties’ presidential candidates. Worse yet for US relations with East Asia and China, the crumbling of the TPP’s prospects came after leaders in Japan and other US friends in the region had incurred considerable domestic political costs in supporting the agreement, and after the Obama administration had framed approval of the agreement (in an attempt to win favor in Congress) as a key battle in the struggle between the United States and China over which of them would “write the rules” of the international economy for the twenty-first century.
The abandonment of the TPP has left the field open for China to take the leadership role in international economic affairs in the Asia Pacific. The China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—derided by the Obama administration as a less liberal, inferior rival to the TPP—is now the only live option, especially at a time when the WTO has faltered as a mechanism for trade and investment liberalization. Beijing is touting RCEP as the way forward for regional economic integration, and a foundation for a future Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). The RCEP, AIIB, and Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” initiative for infrastructure investment westward across continental Asia—none of which include the United States—are a phalanx of institutional foundations for a more China-led and Chinese-influenced regional economic order.
Trump and his advisors have taken positions that threaten to make matters worse, and espouse a misreading of the relevant international economic and legal landscapes. Candidate Trump’s role in taking down the TPP is part of the story. So, too, is the hostility Trump has shown toward other major existing US trade agreements, which are likely similar to any feasible future agreements that could return the United States to a leading role in shaping the international economic order in East Asia. But there is much more. The threat to impose 45 percent tariffs on Chinese goods may be policy-irrelevant posturing, or a ham-fisted attempt to threaten China into adopting a more accommodating stance. If it—or a more subdued version of it—is not bluster or a questionable quest for bargaining leverage, then it is based on: an outdated view that China is severely suppressing the value of its currency; or a similarly antiquated belief that China’s economic growth is primarily export-led and thus is fatally and asymmetrically vulnerable to trade sanctions; or a misconstruction of what trade-impeding measures international and US domestic law allow; or a troubling willingness to risk the drastic consequences of the world’s largest economy opting out of the WTO.
Casting the legitimate criticisms and complex issues of the economic relationship in terms of a simple “United States vs. China” rivalry, as Trump and some of his advisors have, further misportrays the situation and, thus, US policy options. While tariffs or other US restrictions might help some firms that compete with lower-cost Chinese imports (which have contributed to the loss of manufacturing jobs and the decline of some industries in the United States), this would come with multiple, obvious costs, including: retaliatory trade measures by China that would harm currently successful US exporters; rising costs to US consumers for goods from China or for pricier substitutes from elsewhere; rising costs—and, thus, declining competitiveness—for the many US companies that make products incorporating inputs from China; and Chinese firms’ evasion of adverse effects by relocating—especially final-stage manufacturing activities—to countries not facing Trump-imposed trade barriers or sanctions.
Moreover, China’s government need not even resort to the inescapably transparent, economically blunt, politically risky, and legally challengeable mechanisms of trade and investment laws and policies to counteract the effects of, or retaliate against, US moves. With a level of intertwining of big business and political authority that greatly exceeds even that which some worry about under a Trump administration, China’s political leaders can influence large, state-linked companies to make business decisions that serve the regime’s policy goals, including, for example, buying from non-US suppliers or investing in non-US markets. With a capacity to exercise regulatory scrutiny and impose legal sanctions selectively against disfavored firms that dwarfs what is feasible in the United States (even under Trump), Chinese state authorities can disadvantage US firms, and help their competitors, through means that do not obviously violate international legal obligations, Chinese law, or plausibly defensible state policy choices. As in international security, the potential conflict here is asymmetrical in another way as well: notwithstanding Trump’s assertion of a mandate and one-party Republican control of the US government, and even though Chinese leaders are rightly concerned about the dangers to them of a severe economic slowdown in China, the PRC’s authoritarian regime may have more capacity to weather the near-term economic pain of a trade war than will a recently elected and unprecedentedly unpopular president in the United States.
While the challenges for US economic policy toward China are large and growing, and the fragmentary statements from the Trump camp point to some policies that are untenable or perverse, a Trump administration could still craft policies that will advance US interests in economic openness, deep economic engagement with the world’s most dynamic region (and the security benefits it brings), avoidance of a “trade war” with China, and enhanced economic opportunities for US workers and firms; and not require abandoning all Trumpian criticisms of Chinese behavior and past US policy. There is increasingly much to criticize about the ways in which China’s economic laws, policies, and behavior violate international legal obligations, depart from norms of free and fair trade, and tilt economic playing fields in favor of Chinese interests. A tougher stance toward China might induce more conforming behavior, but only if the threats are credible and the demands targeted, specific, and reasonable—features so far lacking in public statements from the incoming president and his emerging team of officials.
There is much to be said for US positions that acknowledge frankly the reasons to reconsider what have proven to be unduly optimistic expectations—underlying decades of policy toward China—that economic engagement and integration of China into the institutions of the international economic order—would socialize China into accepting US-backed international norms and rules, and could even make China more democratic. China’s initial response to Trump’s election, emphasizing mutual interests in maintaining a cooperative economic relationship and largely declining to take umbrage at Trump’s trade-focused China-bashing, may suggest some possible Trump-induced flexibility from China—although it might only indicate learned patience with outsized and evanescent rhetoric from US presidential candidates, or skepticism about the depth of Trump’s policy commitments, or beliefs that more experienced aides will rein in the neophyte US leader.
Whatever the wisdom, and feasibility, of possible policies to address bilateral US-China economic relations, a major challenge for the Trump administration—and a major gap in its publicly articulated thinking so far—is development of a plausible strategy for engaging economically with East Asia in a post-TPP era. Accelerating a shift toward Chinese leadership and economic dominance in such an economically important region by absenting the United States from the multilateral arrangements that likely will emerge, with or without US participation, is not good for American economic interests. Conveying a message of economic retrenchment from the region is also bad for US security interests, given that a security commitment without an economic dimension—the pivot without the TPP—is likely unsustainable and not credible with China or friends and allies in the region.
One especially vital underpinning for a vigorous economic and security presence in East Asia is clearly on the Trump policy agenda: a strong economy at home to provide the necessary material resources for a strong US presence abroad. The deep worry, however, is that a Trump administration’s economic policies may be badly ill-suited or inadequate to the task.
The Trump administration will also have to grapple with how to engage China over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. This problem goes back in roughly its current form to the Six-Party Talks during the George W. Bush administration (which relied on China to play a central role) and the Agreed Framework from the Clinton administration, both of which failed to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program. And the challenge has grown worse during Obama’s presidency, with: the breakdown of the Six-Party process; North Korea’s series of device and missile tests; and general recognition that the DPRK had unambiguously become a nuclear armed state and was very unlikely to denuclearize. Despite Beijing’s increasing frustration with the Kim Jung-un regime, the Obama administration made little headway in getting China to pressure its heavily dependent neighbor. The decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to protect South Korea drew a sharp rebuke from China (which characterized the move as undermining its security), and may have dimmed prospects for China’s cooperation on North Korea.
There may be little that US foreign policy can do to win significantly greater cooperation from Beijing in addressing the North Korea problem, but there are options that would make matters worse and that appear to hold appeal in Trump policy circles. Trump’s suggestion that he could outsource the problem to Beijing is, simply, nonsense. Among the problems is the intractable difficulty that the United States and China have very different interests and, thus, very different bad-case scenarios in North Korea: weapons proliferation and attacks or threats against US allies, for Washington; and disorderly collapse of the DPRK and a unified Korean Peninsula under a US-allied regime, for Beijing.
Trump’s mid-campaign suggestion that South Korea might have to rely on itself for its security casts doubt on a feature of the regional security architecture that has contributed to China’s limited cooperation on North Korea issues. Also unhelpful is the Trump team’s apparent rejection of the Obama administration’s argument that the North Korea problem is more pressing than many of the Middle East and terrorism-related issues that are the central national security concerns of the incoming administration. Chinese cooperation on North Korea is even less likely to be forthcoming if the United States does not signal clearly to China that it regards North Korea as a top-tier international security concern.
As the reaction to Trump’s brief conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen has illustrated, Taiwan is a hardy perennial among the issues that can roil relations between the United States and China and ripple throughout East Asia. In its current general form, the problem dates to the 1990s, when Lee Teng-hui became Taiwan’s first democratically elected leader and secured permission to travel to the United States for his graduate school reunion, where he delivered a speech that touched, albeit lightly, on the matter of Taiwan’s international status. Over the following thirteen years, Taiwan became a chronic problem in US relations with China: President Bill Clinton sent US Navy ships near the Taiwan Strait in response to missile exercises that the PRC launched, showing Beijing’s displeasure with Lee’s US visit and seeking to rattle Taiwan’s voters in the run-up to the election that would give Lee another term; and George W. Bush moved from promising to do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself, to assuring Premier Wen Jiabao that the United States opposed “the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan”—Chen Shui-bian, the first president from the traditionally “pro-independence” Democratic Progressive Party—that appeared to seek “unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose,” to a senior State Department official publicly criticizing a Chen-initiated referendum calling for Taiwan to pursue membership in the United Nations and to do so under the name “Taiwan.”
The Obama administration leaves behind a much less fraught situation. Under Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s relations with both mainland China and the United States improved dramatically. Washington avoided being drawn into cross-Strait issues, except for the unforced error of officials’ expressing—partly through media leaks—a preference for Ma’s reelection because of US concerns about whether relations with Beijing would be badly handled by the DPP’s underdog and, ultimately, losing candidate, Tsai Ing-wen. After Tsai won in her second bid for the presidency in 2016, Obama’s administration hewed to a long-standing US approach to the cross-Strait issue, seeking to deter both sides from destabilizing moves—in effect, taking the side of whichever party it judged to be not at fault in the event of signs of an incipient crisis. Applied in 2016, this formula meant welcoming Tsai’s commitment to stability and the status quo in cross-Strait relations and her move toward Taiwan’s political center on cross-Strait issues, and attributing potential problems to Beijing, with its cold shoulder to Tsai and its insistence that she specifically accept the “1992 Consensus” language from the Ma era and its imbedded “one China” principle.
US policy toward Taiwan and cross-Strait issues was poised to pose greater challenges under Obama’s successor. Although signals suggested that the Xi Jinping leadership would remain relatively tolerant of the cross-Strait status quo, concerns were growing on the mainland about the inexorable rise of a non-Chinese Taiwanese identity and the risks of “soft independence,” and it was far from clear that the “cold peace” or “cold confrontation” that had characterized Beijing’s stance toward Tsai would be sustainable over a long period. Moreover, every new US president in recent times predictably hears a cacophonous chorus of Taiwan policy advice, ranging from calls to “abandon Taiwan” to entreaties to grant Taiwan formal status and ties more akin to those with friendly and democratic states. Voices in favor of the latter view appear to be relatively numerous and influential among Trump’s circle of advisers.
Moves by Trump and his advisors have made these pending policy issues more immediately volatile. By engaging in the phone call with Tsai, Trump broke with a policy that had avoided such direct, high-level contacts since the US severed formal relations with the government in Taiwan nearly four decades earlier. When Trump then pointedly eschewed (in a series of tweets) the customary reassurances that a controversial statement betokened no change in Washington’s commitment to its version of a “one China” policy (a task dutifully—if with questionable efficacy—undertaken by Obama’s staff), observers were left to speculate about what it all meant. Beijing offered a measured initial response, made possible by the fact that Trump was still merely president-elect and that his contact with Tsai was just a more extreme version of acts by former, or expected future, senior US officials, who often meet with Taiwanese leaders. Chinese official sources: blamed the Taiwan government’s trickery (rather than a plot by the incoming US leadership team); demanded that “relevant parties” deal with the Taiwan issue prudently and on the basis of the established one-China policy and the Three Communiqués; and, thus, implicitly invited Trump to return to the status quo ante.
With its options still open but possibly narrowing, the question is whether the Trump administration will pursue a policy that serves US interests on Taiwan and cross-Strait issues. The policies of the relatively recent past generally have done so, in that they have: deterred the regimes on both sides of the Strait from conflict and, most of the time, crises; helped to preserve a de facto independent Taiwan with a vibrant democracy; and, since 2008, kept the United States out of the problematic role of mediating cross-Strait quarrels.
This is not to say that an adjustment of policy in a more “pro-Taiwan” direction could not serve US interests. There is a strong normative case for more effusive US support for Taiwan, given Taiwan’s durable stature as a human rights-protecting market democracy, and the attendant contrasts with what has become an increasingly repressive regime in China. Stability across the Strait requires, among other things, a US commitment that Taiwan regards as sufficiently credible to give it confidence in dealing with Beijing and to induce it to forego a desperate lurch toward independence. And the threshold for this commitment will be rising if, as is easily imaginable, Beijing decides to increase pressure on Taiwan under Tsai. Moreover, calculations of US security interests have shifted in favor of clearer support for Taiwan, amid: growing needs (partly fed by Trump) to reassure all regional allies of American commitments; and a US-China bilateral relationship that has generally become less positive and in which the Taiwan issue has greatly receded (at least prior to Trump’s phone call) as a likely cause of an avoidable crisis in bilateral relations.
While a policy shift in Taiwan’s favor is, thus, defensible and, perhaps, desirable, undertaking it successfully and without significant unnecessary costs requires sophistication and delicacy that have not been hallmarks of the Trump campaign or the post-election transition. A detailed understanding of what statements will, and will not, be seen by Beijing as portending provocative policy changes is vital, and sometimes has eluded even presidents and senior officials in prior administrations who have been far more experienced and better briefed. Precision of language—another trait not strongly associated with the man who will be the 45th president—is valuable in navigating a policy area characterized by the rich, almost scholasticist, catechism of the Three Communiqués, Six Assurances, Three Nos, and much else.
Whatever the intent of the Trump advisors who arranged the call with Tsai, it is far from clear that this signals a significant policy shift. Beijing’s relatively mild initial response suggests a belief that it does not, or that, if it does, the change can be nipped in the bud. Tsai, too, portrayed the call as not signaling a major change. Analysis sympathetic to Trump has suggested that he might be pursuing a negotiating tactic, threatening a move China would not like to increase leverage in future talks. In circles sympathetic to Taiwan, concerns have long percolated that, notwithstanding pro-Taiwan sentiments among Trump advisors, Trump could ultimately treat Taiwan as a “bargaining chip” in the context of the larger US-China relationship. Amid the ambiguity and inconsistency of Trump positions on foreign affairs, especially in East Asia, it seems hard to predict the effects on Taiwan policy if China were to react to what it saw as a major change in Taiwan policy by retaliating in other areas—for example, by undertaking more aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
Thus, on Taiwan as in other major areas of policy toward China (and with broader implications for East Asia), policy options are available to the Trump administration that would serve the enduring yet constantly evolving interests of the United States, and some of those options include changes in US policy that are consistent with some of the critiques of past policy raised by Trump and his advisors. Yet, it remains unusually—and disconcertingly—unclear what the next administration’s policies will be, how radically they might depart from recent or long-established precedents, and, thus, how likely they are to advance and preserve important US interests and values in East Asia generally and US relations with China more specifically.