Last December President-elect Donald Trump upended a long-established understanding between the United States and China by taking a call of congratulations from the President of Taiwan following his election. In doing so, he defied the historic “one-China” policy forged between Beijing and Washington in which both countries agreed to regard the island as part of the mainland and not as an independent state. His actions garnered alarmed headlines. Trump then went further and stated publicly that he did not see why the US should necessarily be bound by the “one China” policy in the future. Trump’s stance directly threatened American-Chinese relations. Two months later, though, Trump relented, turned around, and embraced the “one China” policy.
Trump’s abrupt reversal occasioned scant notice in the American press -- a surprise considering the furor he had caused with his original suggestion. The imbroglio raised questions -- why did Trump insist in the first place that we consider dropping the policy? Was he trying to use that position as a bargaining chip to win Chinese concessions on trade, or force the Chinese government to back off its expansionist moves over the islands in the South China Seas? Or was there another reason, possibly related to his private business interests in China? Given his background as a deal-maker, any of those notions seemed plausible. However, his subsequent back-down makes one wonder what this rumpus was all about.
If Trump, by accepting the Taiwan call, had decided to put the Communist regime in China, infamous both for its protectionist policies and its land-grabbing forays, on notice that he would challenge it over trade and over the disputed islands and other matters, trashing the “one China” policy would surely catch the attention of recalcitrant officialdom in China. It is considered a sacrosanct doctrine. In fact, though, Trump’s threats thereafter led to no evident concessions from the Chinese.
But, in the face of Chinese refusal to bargain, wasn’t Trump prepared to stick by his alarums irregardless, for, otherwise, why take the risk in bringing up the idea initially? The rationale may have been Trump’s so-called “madman” theory of international relations, which is to keep his opponents off balance by making outlandish demands on them and force his adversaries into ceding ground. However, Trump’s pull back instead made him look weak and ineffective.
His change of heart may, in any case, have come from internal pressure from his own advisors, inexperienced as they might be, as well as his corporate friends with interests in China, telling him that in rejecting the “one China” policy, he would be tossing overboard a carefully designed Sino-US arrangement that had sustained a steady and profitable relationship between Washington and Beijing over a 44 years period.
There is also the possibility that the Chinese simply decided to call his bluff and make clear that they would not deal with him until he accepted the “one-China” position. Trump had to fear then that his posturing could produce serious adverse consequences for US security in Asia. Indeed, there would be little probability of any real changes in US-China trade rules or any chance of disarming North Korea if he stuck to his course.
However an alternative explanation for his about-face soon arose — the curious fact that six days after Trump abandoned his opposition to the “one China” position, Beijing awarded Trump a ten year copyright trademark accord for his various enterprises (including an escort service) in China which it had previously denied to him for almost eleven years. Was this more than a coincidence?
By Chinese standards, the copyright concession was undoubtedly a throw-away and did not cost the country much but it surely would have helped to calm Trump down and earn the Chinese good-will with the administration. In any case, Trump accepted it (and, in doing so, may have breached the US constitution’s emoluments clause). A cynic might say that his subsequent (and continuing) denunciations of China for manipulating its currency and refusing to do anything about North Korea since the agreement has been a way to deflect any unfavorable US press coverage or criticism of what happened.
How does this predict Trump’s future relations with China? With a meeting coming up between Trump and President Xi shortly, this episode may be prophetic. The likelihood is probably much of the same -- a mix of bravado, public kevvetching, tacit retreats and private deals. Apparently, in his mind, it makes for a workable China doctrine.