Even the most pessimistic of commentators must be astounded by US President-elect Donald Trump’s capacity to destabilise some of the most important elements of the existing international order – even before he actually gets into office.
It’s hard to know which is the more alarming possibility, but the Trump team either decided that accepting a phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen sent an important, unambiguous message to China about the incoming administration’s priorities, or they didn’t have any idea about the impact such an unprecedented gesture might have.
Advocates of the “Trump is a diplomatic genius with a talent for wrong-footing the opposition” school may be feeling vindicated and elated. There is little doubt that their man has got China’s leadership feeling uneasy, not to say infuriated.
Whatever China’s diplomats may have thought about Hillary Clinton’s policies, they had the great merit of being entirely predictable and based on maintaining the diplomatic status quo.
Those of us in the “Trump is an ignorant, narcissistic blowhard with the attention span of a ten-year-old and incipient megalomania” school are not feeling quite so sanguine. There may be much that is unsatisfactory and hypocritical about the “one China” formula that the US – and everyone else – has adopted in relation to the status of Taiwan, but it has kept the peace in the Taiwan Straits for decades.
A number of Trump’s key advisers, like Peter Navarro and John Bolton, are prominent advocates of closer ties with Taiwan, and are keen to take a more aggressive stance toward China as a result.
Whatever the merits of supporting Taiwanese democracy or even the possibility of complete independence, the question is: how might this be achieved without wrecking the global economy or starting World War Three?
It is difficult to overstate the depth of feeling in China about the status of Taiwan, which almost everyone regards as a “renegade” province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland. China reserves the right to use force to resolve what it considers to be a domestic problem if necessary. Taiwan’s status is simply non-negotiable.
Consequently, there is simply no way that any leader in China – especially one that has been so assiduously centralising power in his own person as Xi Jinping – can afford to look weak on this issue. Pressure points don’t get much more neuralgic than this for the Chinese people as a whole.
Thus far, China’s foreign policy spokespeople, and even rabidly nationalist media outlets like the notorious Global Times, are adopting a surprisingly level-headed response. China’s normally acerbic and outspoken foreign minister, Wang Yi, has dismissed the incident as a “small trick” on Taiwan’s part.
Trump and his advisers seem to believe they are in the ascendancy when it comes to dealing with China. Stopping China from “raping” the US by deploying tariffs and other forms of protectionism was Trump’s declared aim during the election campaign. Not only is this unlikely to happen, though, but it displays an equally astounding lack of understanding about the nature of “America’s” economic relationship with “China”.
The inverted commas are not just an academic affectation in this context. In reality, many of “China’s” exports are produced by notionally American companies. American consumers are arguably the principal beneficiaries of this process.
Likewise, if the Trump administration really wants to ramp up spending on domestic infrastructure – and the military, for that matter – they will need to ensure that China keeps on buying their debt.
One might have thought that someone who considers himself to be an economic genius would get that much about the relationship with China, at least. Yet an ignorance of basic facts and historical realities is obviously no obstacle to making policy in the alternative reality Trump inhabits.
Unfortunately for friend and foe alike, it’s the world we live in, too. For alliance diehards in Canberra – that is, just about everybody – these must be confusing and troubling times.
The last time the status of Taiwan threatened to boil over into outright conflict between China and the US, former foreign minister Alexander Downer suggested ANZUS might not oblige us to get involved.
Downer was rapidly pulled into line by his boss John Howard and universally admonished for such heretical and irresponsible views. Some of us thought they didn’t look entirely inappropriate in 2004. The idea that an independent, non-committal attitude toward defence policy might be an appropriate position for Australia to adopt certainly looks worthy of reconsideration now.
If Trump can already undermine the foundations of the accepted international order and jeopardise America’s – and our – most important bilateral relationship, what will he do when he actually moves into the White House?
Come back Alexander, all is forgiven.
Authors: Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia