Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen in front of a PLA guard of honour. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen in front of a PLA guard of honour. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee

President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call to Taiwan’s president has been called both a blunder and a brilliant move, but within it lies the clue for the kind of policies his administration would be following in the future vis-à-vis China.

Whereas the conversation with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen illustrates the stance towards China he had advocated during his election campaign, it also implies that the Trump administration is paving the way for a new sort of engagement with China.

By re-activating the largely forgotten territorial dispute, Donald Trump has challenged the fiction of “One China,” and through it he might attempt to re-write rules of engagement not only with China—and he is already onto it—but also with whole region.

As it stands, the hyperbolic tension that followed the phone call was not diffused, nor was it intended to. On the contrary, Trump went on to set the tone further on a high pitch by posting a series of tweets, targeting China’s economic and military policies.

Certainly, Donald Trump is willing to go well past the traditional parameters of engagement with China (read: President Carter had cut formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979, recognizing Taiwan as part of ‘One-China’).  However, it is not only China that, for Trump, is the important target.

Many in the US believe that Taiwan is sensitive enough an area which, if highlighted enough, can turn out to be a good bargaining chip for the US to re-position itself in the region. The only question is: will it—and if yes, how?  Will this issue be enough to allow the US to once again become relevant in the region, which the US had previously tried to dominate through its “Asia Pivot” policy?

This strategy hasn’t worked. The US needed a new strategy to renew its importance in the region and send a message to its allies, who have been expressing uncertainty about the role the new president would play in the region. Trump’s call served both purposes: it did send a message to China and its traditional rivals equally.

With Trump willing to deal with China on a new footing, it is only a matter of time that the South and East China Sea issues would gain fresh global significance. This, in the US calculation, would enable it to reclaim some of the influence it has lost in the region during last few years, the latest addition to it being the probable scrapping of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.

The message, according to Republican Party’s John Bolton, was clear: “the president of the United States [will] talk to whomever he wants if he thinks it’s in the interest of the United States, and nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to.”

Notwithstanding what the Trump administration is seeking to achieve, China’s response to this episode has indicated that it intends to retain its own control, sending a wake-up call to the island, located merely 180 km away from the mainland China.

Chinese military aircraft have already begun to roam not only the strait but also the island’s remote east side.

As the east side has traditionally been regarded as the Taiwanese military’s safe haven, this represents a major step by Chinese forces in the potential preparation for a future invasion. Taiwan is hardly an impregnable fortress despite the width of the strait.

China’s dramatic military buildup over the past decade, coupled with declining Taiwanese defense budgets, has shifted the balance of power to the point “where defeat in an invasion scenario – barring foreign intervention – is now inevitable,” according to a two year old report of the US Naval Institute.

The tension thus building up after the phone call has not mitigated, it has been followed by actual and calls for military build-up.

Views expressed in the 2014 Naval report were recently echoed by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Abraham Denmark, who was reported to have said, while expressing uncertainty about Trump’s intentions about Taiwan, China’s policy was to achieve reunification with Taiwan, by force if necessary.

“This makes it incumbent on Taiwan to prepare and invest in capabilities to deter aggression and mount an effective defense if deterrence fails,” he said. “Defense resourcing is critical,” he said. “Taiwan’s defense budget has not kept pace with the threat developments and should be increased.”

China’s own fresh military maneuvers have provided a new stimulus to the call for the supply of weapons to Taiwan. Denmark said the Obama administration had notified Congress of more than US$14 billion of arms sales to Taiwan since 2010 but declined to say whether any further sales were possible before President Barack Obama leaves office.

He said the United States was committed under the Taiwan Relations Act to ensuring it had the capability to defend Taiwan.

On December 27, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Feng Shihkuan warned of increased threats from China a day after Beijing’s first aircraft carrier was detected sailing across the East China Sea. According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency and Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News, Feng said Tuesday the “enemy’s threats are increasingly expanding,” referring to the Liaoning, the aircraft carrier that was sailing to the Western Pacific for what Beijing calls a routine scheduled drill.

With Trump seemingly willing to shake the delicate balance held since 1979 and with China signalling its own preparation to militarily intervene if need be, renewed confrontation is quite likely.

After an initial relatively mild response to Trump’s call, China has gradually stiffened its protests, warning in a front-page editorial in the overseas edition of People’s Daily, that “creating troubles for the China-US relationship is creating troubles for the US itself.”

While it cannot be gainsaid that the scenario depicts a confrontation-in-the-making, the becoming of Taiwan what some like to call a ‘fortunate pawn’ between China and the US can equally turn into a becoming of an ‘unfortunate proxy’ between the two.

This is likely to happen if—and it appears to be a big if—China feels that the US is shifting towards what the Chinese would see as increased obstruction of unification. A phone call, followed by a series of tweets, has already stirred China into showing off its military might vis-à-vis the lame-duck Taiwan.

Were the Trump administration to persist in extending the same rhetoric into coming years, confrontation would increase and the region will face further militarization.

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at

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