WHEN MAO ZEDONG and US President Richard Nixon were normalising China-US relations nearly half a century ago, one implicit trade-off was that in return for recognition by the United States that Taiwan was part of China, Beijing would put off reuniting the island and the mainland sine die. That formulation of what would become the ‘One China’ policy allowed the Taiwan issue to be parked to one side regardless of the state of the relationship.
The understanding had been a dependable pillar of the US-China relationship until the Trump administration. The current US administration has shown more willingness than any that preceded it to lump Taiwan in with all the other issues that concern it about China — trade, technology, cybersecurity, Covid-19 and values. This is dangerous. It enhances the risk of miscalculation on both sides, and the frequency of the opportunities for doing so.
The issue of routinisation again arises with Taiwanese press reports that Keith Krach, a US Under Secretary of State, is to visit the island shortly for high-level economic talks. Last month, US Health Secretary, Alex Azar, became the highest-level US Cabinet official to visit Taiwan since the ‘One China’ severance of formal diplomatic ties between Washington and Taipei in 1979.
Beijing takes such visits as an afront. Today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was blunt:
China firmly opposes official exchanges between the US and Taiwan. This position is consistent and clear. I would like to stress once again that the Taiwan question bears on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and concerns China’s core interests. It is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations. The one-China principle is the political foundation of China-US relations. We urge the US side to abide by the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiques, and to stop all forms of official ties between the US and Taiwan so as to avoid serious damage to China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
The language is, however, pro forma. Weighing all the factors, especially China’s growing economic and military power, Beijing should continue to play a long game and let history run its course. President Xi Jinping has shown many indications that that would be his preference, even while necessarily maintaining a rhetorical commitment to eventual reunification.
However, the unpredictability that the Trump administration has injected into the relationship may strengthen the case that a pre-emptive attack may be worth the risk. The calculation around the status quo will change if Beijing perceives the US administration’s support of Taiwanese independence to be both ending the One China policy and matched by wavering in the US commitment to put its forces in harm’s way in defence of Taiwan.
President Tsai Ing-wen is more pro-independence than to Beijing’s liking, and it was miffed by her re-election earlier this year. Since then, there has been an intensification of PLA activity around the island. Beijing has also upped its efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally, both diplomatically and by pressuring multinational companies that do business in China not to label Taiwan as a country.
However, the Trump administration’s abandonment of many of the institutional dialogues between the two countries built up in the Bush and Obama administrations, remove the channels that can communicate countervailing narratives of Beijing’s real intent. That leaves Washington closer to Beijing’s red lines, which would be crossed by any or all of it instigating de facto independence through formal diplomatic recognition or military alliance, or arms sales that would ensure Taiwan could ensure perpetual autonomy.
Beijing can see a United States repeatedly seeking means to demonstrate its support for Taiwan’s autonomy in ways that are deliberately confrontational without breaching Beijing’s redlines. However, Beijing is uncertain how far the US administration intends to approach. As this Bystander noted before, the margin of error is small, and getting smaller. That is where the danger of a miscalculation lies.