Trump's 'One China' Comments Undermine the Foundations of American Leadership

Trump in China
A Chinese magazine featuring U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on the cover is seen at a newsstand in Shanghai on December 14. China warned Taiwan that declaring independence would be a 'dead end,' state media said December 14, after the island's democratically elected president called Donald Trump in a precedent-breaking move. Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

A week after his telephone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, President-elect Donald Trump told Fox News on December 11 that he did not understand "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 that he "fully" understands the One China policy but does not "want China dictating to me."

The policy is an acceptance of the position that there is only one China, which would include the breakaway island of Taiwan in any future reunification. At present, the U.S. has formal relations with the People's Republic of China, but maintains only non-official diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Trump's remarks about the One China policy have triggered intense discussion about the Trump administration's future policy toward China and Taiwan. Some advocates of a major shift in America's China policy downplay the ramifications of Trump's unprecedented phone call and his statement on the One China policy because they do not want the incoming administration to be deterred from moving in a direction they desire. What can China do anyway?

One China is not just a "policy" but a fundamental "principle" for the Chinese government, which leaves little room for compromise. China claims Taiwan as a province. But the Chinese government has not been able to dictate to the United States about Taiwan. Along with China, the United States owns the One China policy, which resulted from a strategic deal struck in 1972 between strong and visionary political leaders and skilled diplomats in both countries.

The United States agreed not to support an independent Taiwan, a key demand from Beijing. But Washington also insisted that China denounce the use of force to achieve unification—something it has never done. The United States has a Taiwan Relations Act that authorizes defense assistance to the island, a U.S. law that Beijing has never accepted but tolerates to some extent as part of a strategic package. The One China policy has evolved, but the core understanding remains. Until now.

The One China arrangement has served the strategic and domestic politics interests of the United States and China, forming the foundation of their increasingly intertwined but troubled relationship. But as with all other social arrangements, the One China compromise has imposed restrictions on all parties involved. No one can move as freely as they wish because the others would punish deviations from the norm.

Circumstances change. All social structures can be undone and some arguably should be undone. But caution should be exercised over the One China policy.

China will retaliate even though its official reaction has so far been relatively restrained, compared to its usual standards. Beijing is likely to punish Taiwan by shrinking the latter's international space. Beijing's possible move against Taiwan would be a test for Trump's 'America first' foreign policy. The people of Taiwan should not be treated as a bargaining chip but may well end up in that situation.

With a vibrant democracy, Taiwan has an advantage over China. But the president-elect never mentioned the words human rights or democracy during the election campaign. His mantra was trade and American jobs. The Chinese market dwarfs Taiwan from that perspective. Small countries typically pay a price when great powers make deals.

China may also retaliate in a whole range of areas such as North Korea and Iran. China has more influence now than in 1972 and by all indications, they will use them over Taiwan. China's already influential hardliners will rise further. In response to Trump's move so far, China's hawkish Global Times has repeatedly urged the government to increase China's nuclear arsenal in quantity and quality vis-à-vis the United States.

It is not lost on hardliners in China that Trump seems to respect Russian President Vladimir Putin who willingly uses force to brandish Russian power, even though Russia has a far weaker economic base than China. To me, the biggest impact of the One China policy controversy will be the perception that China is now free to give the United States surprises of its own. While China has already become more assertive, it is still far more cautious than Russia. That could all change now.

Trump's "One China policy" putdown was the latest addition to a long list of assaults on the foundations of the postwar American leadership in the world. A world leader needs to be predictable and steady. Unpredictability may give the incoming Trump administration tactical advantages in certain, narrow issues, but erodes U.S. leadership and prestige in the long run. If the United States under Trump becomes simply the smartest dealmaker and the baddest bully in the hood, the country will just become just as ordinary as any other— a sad fate for the U.S. and the international community.

The world was already troubled before Trump's rise. The danger is not so much more countries confronting the United States as countries doing their own things and engaging with each other with little regard for U.S. concerns. That could throw global politics into disarray.

Dr. Ming Wan is a professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government in Virginia