US President-elect Donald Trump speaks at the USA Thank You Tour event at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., December 8, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
US President-elect Donald Trump speaks at the USA Thank You Tour event at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., December 8, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

US President-elect Donald Trump continued to hammer away at the linchpin of US-China relations this week, questioning the One China policy on Taiwan.

Trump on Sunday asserted he recognizes the principle behind regarding China’s communist government as the sole authority in China. But in a televised interview he challenged the leverage that policy has given Beijing.

“I fully understand the One China policy, but 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,” Trump said on Fox News.

China’s Foreign Ministry reacted with a relatively mild statement on the comments.

“Adherence to the One China principle serves as the political foundation for the development of China-US ties,” said Gen Shuang. “If this foundation is wobbled and weakened, then there is no possibility for the two countries to grow their relations in a sound and steady way and cooperate on key areas.”

By contrast, the nationalist and Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper called on China to consider the use of military force against Taiwan.

“Beijing should start from severely punishing Taiwan independence forces, exploring the possibility of disciplining those forces through non-peaceful means and make the use of military force an actual option to realize reunification,” the newspaper stated in an editorial.

Trump has vowed to adopt more nationalist US foreign and economic policies based on his support from Americans who rejected the cosmopolitan and globalist policies of current US President Barack Obama.

And during the presidential campaign Trump vowed to order the US Treasury Department to declare China a currency manipulator, a move that likely will trigger a trade conflict with a major American trading partner.

In October, Treasury announced it would not make the declaration of currency manipulation, although China is on a list of states being monitoring for unscrupulous currency activities. Currency manipulation involves skewing exchange rates against the US dollar to produce unfair trade advantages.

“We’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation, with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them,” Trump said.

The incoming American president then criticized China for its buildup of military facilities on newly-created islands in the South China Sea, noting Beijing is “building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing.”

The comment suggests Trump and his administration are preparing to adopt hardline policies toward China’s maritime aggression in addition to trade.

In security affairs, Trump advocates policies first outlined under the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s called “Peace Through Strength.”

The concept calls for building up military and other power to deter and dissuade other powers from acting against US interests. To that end, the new administration plans to overturn current legislation limiting Pentagon spending, and to infuse the US military with an initial US$500 billion in new defense spending.

Foreign policy under Trump also will be shaped by a new “America First” approach — policies aligned with advancing core US interests.

The new president’s views on China were outlined in his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” when he first entertained the notion of running for office. In the book, Trump stated that “our biggest long term challenge will be China” and he noted that efforts to induce democratic political reform in China through trade have not worked.

Trump also split with many in the international business community who believed pressing China to end human rights abuses should be subordinated to pro-trade policies.

He also disagreed with the current approach of the foreign policy establishment of unrestricted engagement with China.

“We have to make it absolutely clear that we’re willing to trade with China, but not to trade away our principles, and that under no circumstances will we keep our markets open to countries that steal from us,” Trump said in the book.

The latest remarks on China by Trump followed the first phone call between a US leader and Taiwan’s president in decades since the United States “unrecognized” Taiwan and shifted diplomatic ties to Beijing.

On Sunday, Trump dismissed reports that the phone call from Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen was part of a calculated shift in US strategy in preparation for several weeks before the phone exchange.

“Oh, it’s all wrong. No, no. It’s all wrong. Not weeks,” he said. “I took a call. I heard the call was coming probably an hour or two before.”

The phone call appeared to catch Chinese leaders off guard.

Chinese leaders remain convinced that the United States is a declining superpower and are working covertly to manage that decline in ways beneficial to China’s interests. The mild respond to the Tsai-Trump exchange is likely the result of senior leaders, including Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, harboring concerns that any harsh would trigger a sharp disruption in US-China tie. So far, China limited its protests to diplomatic protests to the State Department, and protests directed at Trump transition team officials.

For Trump, however, the phone call was a preemptive diplomatic shot across the bow of China’s leaders.

China watchers in the United States say the Chinese are expected to test the new president in the coming months with some type of military provocation. Three possible options include the declaration of an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea; new military construction at the dispute Scarborough Shoal close to where US military forces will be based on the Philippines, or a more direct confrontation with the Japanese in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku Islands.

But the phone call between Trump and Taiwan’s new democratically elected leader appears to have preempted the Chinese and placed Beijing on the defensive in dealing with a new and more unpredictably American leader.

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books, including iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age (Threshold Editions).

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