Dangerous waters: Trump\'s Taiwan push

Muhammad Mahmood | Saturday, 7 January 2017

A phone call from Tsai Ing-Wen, the Taiwanese President to US President-elect Donald Trump on December 02, 2016 in itself should not have caused a crisis in US-China relations.  The phone call lasted for ten minutes. Trump has had no misgivings in taking the call and was arranged beforehand at the initiative of the Taipei government.  But it tells us more than just a telephone conversation; it tells us more about Trump's likely foreign policy direction knowing full well that rest of the world, including China, would be paying attention to it. Attention seeking is the hallmark of all narcissists but in this case it is more than that. He was definitely conveying some foreign policy-related signals, including his policy direction towards China, while recognising his erratic behaviour. Taiwan would definitely like to develop a much closer relationship with the USA but whether the telephone call  signals a new approach  towards Taiwan is not very clear yet and Trump's unpredictability makes it even more difficult.
For almost four decades it has been the US official policy to recognise only the People's Republic of China not Taiwan acknowledging Taiwan as part of "one China''. China considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province. From the Chinese perspective Taiwan, along with the South China Sea, are the two "core'' issues which are not negotiable. This has been quite well understood in the Washington policy-making circles for a considerable period of time and they also know full well the implications of tinkering with those two core issues. Trump's advisers must be aware of those parameters and should have informed  the President-elect what "one China" means to Beijing. It is the issue encompassing both sovereignty and territorial integrity - the very foundation stone of national unity.  Like many other of his convoluted policies to make "America (USA) great again'', in the foreign policy area to try what he intends to try and pull it off would be a very dangerous gamble.
But the present US administration under President Obama assured the Chinese administration that "one China" policy remains intact. But Trump quite clearly stated that he did not see the necessity of sticking to the long-standing position of Taiwan as part of "one China". By saying so in one stroke he undermined and isolated  Obama and signalled his administration intends to manage foreign policy differently. In an interview on the New Year's Eve he clearly stated that there would be likelihood that if Ms Tsai visited the USA after his inauguration as President, he would receive her in the White House.   However, what Trump is doing is not new, among many hardline republicans, there has always been a push to confront China by reaching out to Taiwan. There are also unconfirmed reports that Trump's real estate company is developing business interests in Taiwan.
How different would that policy be? Trump told Fox News that he fully understood the "one China" policy but he did not feel bound by it unless the US could make deals with China on a number of issues including trade. He also criticised China on its currency policy as well as the South China Sea and North Korea issues. He said that China should not dictate to him whether he should take a call from the Taiwanese leader or not. It was a litany of complaints against China.
 In summary, he made it clear that he wanted to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to close some deals with China. This is what he has been doing most of his life-making deals and is now attempting to do the same in the foreign policy arena. Jonathan Pollock, a Brooking Institute Scholar on US-China relations remarked that Trump as president-elect was overtly challenging the current US policy and he (Trump) appeared to be oblivious to their potential implications and downside risks.
The ten-minute telephone call also signals Obama's Asia policy has come to an end but nobody is sure what the new policy would bring. China initially took a very restrained position on Trump's hardline rhetoric against it to give him enough space to moderate his views or chart a new course before he takes his office. But China eventually had enough and lodged a complaint with the current US administration. Advising to "handle issues related to Taiwan carefully and properly to avoid causing unnecessary interference to the overall US-China relationship".
But the core issue relating to the US-China relationship is whether the USA will accept an economically peacefully rising China and interact with it accordingly or not. From the US policy planners' perspective if China becomes economically stronger, it is bound to be militarily stronger and therefore will be a challenge to the USA as a global hegemon. That's what will also drive Trump's foreign policy and will settle down despite his freewheeling diplomacy to interact with China. That's what is his Taiwan push is all about to use it as a bargaining chip to bolster its aggressive posturing with China to contain it.
CONTAINMENT OF CHINA: During a recent visit to Sydney, Australia , Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific forces reaffirmed  that the USA would remain a major player in the region and its  "enduring interests would not change  on January 20th'', referring to the day Trump assumes office. The USA will fly most advanced fighter plane, F-22 out of northern Australia next year, signalling more aggressive posturing towards China. The Admiral then further went on to say that credible combat power is vital along with having the resolve to use it and signalling that resolve. He sees Australia as the essential southern dock to rebalance in Asia. He shares Trump's enthusiasm to expand the US naval presence in the region to 350 warships. More alarming, Admiral Harris is pressing for further encroachment inside the 12-mile exclusion zone into the Chinese-held territories.
The USA first and foremost remains an empire.  In the declining days of the US Empire, there is likelihood that in view of Trump's endless threats against China, he might think that a war can be a viable option to unite the country (USA), a country now in deep economic and political crisis and also deeply divided and make it great again.  Ronald Reagan in his time also vowed to make America (USA) great again.
If one looks at in a recent historical perspective, the latest aggressive military posturing and the policy of economic containment of China started immediately after the inauguration of President Obama. But the US strategic policy over decades towards China has always been to keep China cornered that's why the USA fostered Japan as the junior partner to that end. That policy has now reached a stage where policy planners in Washington  are now actively working  on and fine-tuning  the feasibility of nuclear war and how that can be applied to China. To this end under the Obama administration the mini-nuclear weapons development programme was initiated to fight localised nuclear wars. These are the background circumstances the Trump administration will inherit from his predecessor. Many of Trump's advisers and cabinet members display a great disposition to war, including the nuclear option, and such inherited circumstances just make their lives easier to indulge in their fantasies of deploying the US war machine to contain China.
The obvious choice of the battlefield is the South China Sea and to provoke confrontation with China, the USA has conducted a series of its version of the freedom of navigation exercises along with its loyal allies. And what is surprising is that Indian navy also joined in these exercises. Given that the other littoral countries surrounding the sea, including Taiwan, also lay claim to the waters but the USA has not challenged let alone threatened any one of these countries to ensure its version of the freedom of navigation.  Instead it singularly targeted China and has been continually threatening and harassing the country for making its historical claims on the sea which one of the major contestant countries, Vietnam, recognised in 1957. In fact, the USA is encouraging these claimant countries to militarily confront China.   In the circumstances, China's military preparedness to defend its legitimate rights is not only defensible but also appropriate and legitimate. China is just defending its national sovereignty and territorial integrity under very serious threats from the USA and its allies. A Chinese foreign ministry official very correctly pointed out that if China's building of normal defensive facilities on its own territorial islands is considered militarization, then how is the sailing of fleets into the South China Sea?
Trump is upping the ante by trying to using the Taiwan card. John Pilger, the noted journalist and film maker, has already made the grim forecast that a horrific possibility a US war on China cannot be ruled out. But   Trump needs to take into account that China remains the indispensable and the principal country to set rules of engagement in the East and South China Seas, the USA cannot do that alone any longer. If Trump dares to venture into a war with China it will not be just a one-sided game. Also he should remember since the end of the World War II, the USA did not win one single war despite its enormous military might and devastating fire power (with the exception of the small Caribbean island state of Grenada) and China also confronted the USA before - in   Korea and Vietnam. There is profound danger in what Trump is doing. This is also a sign of an empire which in its declining days is running out of options.
The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.
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