Photo: Mandel Ngan, Agence France Presse
Photo: Mandel Ngan, Agence France Presse

Donald Trump’s agreement to honor America’s “one China” policy in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week after months of questioning this long-standing policy was generally welcomed because it eased tensions between two of the world’s superpowers, and in the Taiwan Strait.

However, his decision to question the policy and then to back down has damaged his reputation. Following Mr Trump’s about-turn, several international media outlets and commentators asserted that America’s new president lost his first fight with China’s communist leader and even called him “a paper tiger” – a term once used by Mao Zedong to describe America. These include the  UK’s Guardian and a Chinese professor and advisor to the Chinese government, who told the New York Times that Trump’s volte-face “will be interpreted in China as a great success, achieved by Xi’s approach of dealing with him.”

Mr Trump’s Taiwan fiasco is also likely to undermine his administration’s efforts to push Beijing to adopt policies that are more beneficial to US interests.

Had he handled the issue differently or wisely, he not only would have avoided such damaging consequences but could also have gained some advantages in his dealings with the Chinese government.

A look at Trump’s statements on the issue and China’s reactions to them shows Beijing only responded angrily after he said the “one China” policy was tradeable and negotiable.

Trump’s standoff with Beijing on the “one China” policy began on December 2, 2016 – when he took a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Though it was the first time a US president or president-elect had publicly spoken with Taiwan’s leader since 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi downplayed its significance, only calling it “a petty trick” by Taipei, without directly rebuking Trump.

On December 4, in defending his 10-minute conversation with Ms Tsai, which he described as a congratulatory call, Trump tweeted: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so.”

Again, whilst undoubtedly angered by Trump’s new rants, Beijing’s reaction remained relatively subdued.

Then China’s posture shifted radically following Trump’s suggestion that the US would not necessarily “be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”

Such a comment, made in an interview with Fox News Sunday on December 11, outraged Beijing. Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, quickly reminded Trump that the established policy is the basis of China-US relations and that should it be damaged, any bilateral cooperation would be “out of the question.” Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, went further, warning any attempt to abandon the policy would be self-detrimental, likening such a move to “lifting a rock only to drop it on one’s feet.”

On January 13, Trump further incensed China when he told The Wall Street Journal: “Everything is under negotiation, including [‘one China’ policy].” The Chinese foreign ministry retorted that Taiwan was “non-negotiable.”

China’s state-controlled media also reacted furiously, unyieldingly telling Trump that the policy “cannot be used for bargaining” and that he “was playing with fire.”

Trump provoked such a furious outcry in China because he touched what the communist country sees as untouchable.

In fact, Trump’s view that America’s “one China” policy was tradeable and negotiable was no longer defensible – not only from Beijing’s perspective but also from the US’s position and Taiwan’s viewpoint.

Though it was very controversial, his phone call with the Taiwanese president was supported by a number of people in America, with one even describing it as “a deliberate move — and a brilliant one at that.” But, hardly anybody, including the Obama administration and Taiwan’s supporters, could back Trump’s view that the 24-million-people island could be used as a source of leverage. Such a stance was wrong and unattainable – politically, diplomatically and morally. That is why Trump had no other choice than to back away from his initial position on the “one China” policy.

However, had he defended his phone call with Taiwan’s president or his willingness to seek closer ties with Taipei by pointing out not only that the US “sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment” but also that the world’s 22nd biggest economy is one of America’s key economic partners he would have had room for maneuver.

No doubt, the phone call broke the diplomatic protocol because Washington cut official ties with Taipei in 1979. Yet, with its Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 and its “Six Assurances” to Taiwan in 1982, America has pledged to support Taiwan’s security and to continue its robust relations with Taipei in other areas.

Thanks to such a commitment, despite the absence of diplomatic ties, US-Taiwan economic, cultural and security cooperation has been substantially strengthened and Taiwan has hugely advanced – both economically and politically.

In 2016, Taiwan was the US’s 10th biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $65.4 billion – considerably bigger than America’s two-way trade with many regional countries, such as Vietnam ($52.3 billion), Malaysia (48.6 billion), Singapore ($45.7 billion), Thailand ($40.1 billion) and Indonesia ($25.2 billion).

Unlike China and many other regional countries, Taiwan has developed into an open economy and an established democracy. It has a democratically elected government, a robust civil society and healthy, free, independent media. By almost all measures, including democracy, freedom, transparency and GDP per capita, the self-governing democratic island outperforms the communist-ruled mainland.

Had Trump highlighted these remarkable achievements of Taiwan, contrasted them with China’s democratic deficits, and underlined that this was the main reason why he valued ties with Taipei, he could have been in a better position to deal with Beijing.

A recent study by a group of leading American academics points out that the US’s relationship with China is increasingly unbalanced not only in trade and investment but also in other important areas. One of these is civil society. It singles out that Beijing has recently taken “steps to more severely restrict (and in some cases block) US think tanks, nongovernmental organizations, media outlets, and Internet companies from operating freely in China, while their Chinese [counterparts] operate with complete freedom and in growing numbers” in the US.

The report goes on stating that this imbalanced situation “allows China to exert an inequitable influence over US public opinion through an unfettered flow of its propaganda.”

Indeed, such an assessment is justified and a case in point is that following Trump’s about-turn on the “one China policy”, Xinhua used Twitter to conduct a survey with a question that provocatively asked, “What has changed his mind?” China’s official press agency has now published its survey results, according to which 30% agreed with the pre-set statement that “Blackmailing didn’t work.” Obviously, the message was not aimed at the Chinese audience because, like YouTube and Facebook, Twitter is banned in the strictly-censored country.

Given such “stark lack of reciprocity” and “imbalanced situation”, the Task Force Report, entitled: “US Policy toward China: Recommendations for a New Administration,” published this month, urges the Trump administration “to open high-level discussions with Chinese leaders on the need to restore a more reciprocal balance between the United States and China in these crucial nongovernmental areas.”

Though it is not mentioned in this highly-recommended report, another feasible way for the Trump administration to seek an easing of China’s human rights, press and civil society policies, is to highlight Taiwan’s policies and achievements in these areas. Still, it has so far been either incapable or unwilling to do this. Or perhaps, due to Trump’s stringent attacks on US media, his despise of America’s core values and his preference for a transactional foreign policy, the businessman-turned-president is not in a good and strong position to raise them.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.