President-elect Donald Trump has decided to poke China in the eye. He has phoned the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, assuring her of America’s support. Yes, the US has always supported Taiwan but usually behind the scenes, apart from its arms supplies. It does not recognize it diplomatically. China was angry. After Sunday’s news that Trump was reconsidering the US’s long-held “One China” policy Beijing is furious.
When, last November, President Xi Jinping met Ma Ying-jeou, then Taiwan’s president and leader of the Kuomintang Party, I observed that if China continues to play its hand quietly it can, if it is shrewd, in the end win re-unification. But perhaps it will be over Trump’s dead body.
The leaders of the two parties, the communists and the Kuomintang, the Republican claimants for power in China, hadn’t met since 1945 during aborted peace negotiations. A while later the Kuomintang, facing defeat from Mao Zedong’s communist army, fled the mainland to Taiwan.
Beijing has over a thousand rockets aimed at Taiwan. The US supplies arms aplenty to Taiwan – some of which need American cooperation and participation to be fired. Despite that China is capable of overwhelming the island’s defences.
In reality both sides need each other. Taiwan wouldn’t be so comfortably off if it didn’t have the Chinese market for its investments, a home for factories churning out the latest products designed by Taiwanese inventors and engineers, and Chinese tourists from the mainland pouring in, not least to look at the old Chinese artefacts that Mao’s Cultural Revolution destroyed at home but have been preserved in Taiwan.
China would not have done so well over the last two decades if it hadn’t had this Taiwanese input. Indeed, one could argue that it was the most important ingredient in China’s technological success.
For years US strategists have been saying this is the world’s most dangerous flashpoint, one that could lead to a nuclear war with China.
Presumably weighing these factors, Xi overrode his bureaucracy’s advice and made this historic reach out. President Ma, as pro-China as Taiwanese voters will permit, wanted to take a step that would leave his mark in history before he left office two months later.
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party under Tsai-Ing-wen swept to power. The DPP is critical of the idea of unification and contains within its ranks a strong human rights contingent which was responsible for Taiwan becoming a democracy and who thus showed that Chinese can be democrats too.
It should be said that when it comes down to it both parties are pro the status quo with one party leaning more towards China and one party leaning away.
Simply put, Xi’s intention at this meeting was to underline that China is the senior partner but at the same time to emphasise it wants re-unification to happen peacefully, thus suggesting that for the time being China also respects the status quo. Trump should be careful not to rock this boat.
What can be done to make resolving the dispute easier if Trump and Xi decided to continue on the old course?
China should agree to initiate military confidence-building measures without any political preconditions. If the US significantly reduced the planned redeployment of 5,000 marines to its base at Guam, which China considers to be another hostile move, China could well agree to start talking.
Second, China should remove its short-range missiles from within a radius of 1000 kilometres from Taiwan. At present in a first strike they could knock out Taiwan’s air-force and navy. Admittedly the Chinese weapons could be quickly moved back but it would show goodwill and build confidence both between Taiwan and China and the US and China.
Third, China should institutionalize a system for allowing more leeway in allowing Taiwan to become a member of international entities like the World Health Organisation.
For its part the US should halt the sale of new weapons’ systems, indeed all arms transfers. The idea that the US maintains arms sales to an island off the coast of a nuclear-armed rising power is absurd. There never can be mutual deterrence. The arms are symbolic but profoundly irritating to Beijing.
If these moves are made then China can be asked to renounce the use of force as a preliminary to negotiations leading to a peace treaty in which full autonomy is given to Taiwan. However, if re-unification ever comes it will have to be on better terms than Hong Kong received and the Taiwanese, in a stronger negotiating position than Hong Kong ever was, will only allow it when they see a good measure of democracy and human rights observance in the mainland.
Progress is in the offing as an evolution of the present status quo. Only statesmanship can bring it about. Can Trump see that? Obviously not.