I agree with you that U.S.-China relations are a delicate balance. A rejection of the “one China” policy or formal advocacy of Taiwan’s independence are steps that are way up the ladder of escalation from receiving a phone call from Madame Tsai. That is reading far too much into it, something the Trump camp has been scrupulous to point out. The Chinese appear willing to take Trump at his word that this represents no shift in policy and I think we should too.
I have met with Xi Jinping on several occasions prior to his elevation as premier. My impression is that he is smart and pragmatic. His strengths as cunning political operator within China’s complex bureaucracy have helped him amass a great deal of official power. But, as powerful as Xi is, a modern China more open to the world and the machinations of market forces outside his control is harder to manage even for an autocratic leader of his skill.
Xi’s principal concern is the increasingly challenging task of keeping China’s massive economic engine running. China must create 14 million urban jobs each year to keep its labor force stable according to HSBC.
My intuition is that Trump is not instinctively hawkish and I think that China might make that judgement as well, which has its dangers. While China would prefer Taiwan consent to its authority voluntarily, there’s always a risk that it would attempt to compel it do so by force.
Indeed as economic problems mount at home, some have argued that it’s not unthinkable that Xi might be tempted to look across the Taiwan strait for a glorious nationalist victory that unites a China that is more politically fractious than it first appears behind his leadership.
However, Xi would not be willing to risk the devastating economic consequences of a conflict with America. So, as long this is part of the calculation, I think the risk of Xi attempting to forcefully alter the status quo in the Taiwan straits is remote. There is value to ensuring that there is no possibility of a misread of Trump’s anti-interventionist instincts as a license to do so.
Trump’s call with President Tsai, made now during the transition while he is not yet President, carries less risk of escalation. China can more easily dismiss it as an unofficial communication consistent with the spirit of the Three Communiques without missing the signal that Trump wants to send. I come in peace, but don’t test me either.
America’s relationship with China will likely be among the most challenging the new administration will face, made substantially more so, in my opinion, by the Obama Administration’s tepid response to Chinese provocations in the South China Sea and other matters that have strengthened China’s hand. A more assertive stance that sets the expectation from the start that Trump intends to deal with Beijing from a position of strength, understanding that it has as much to lose in the relationship with the U.S. as gain, is likely, to encourage China to approach the new administration in a mood to be more accommodating.
China, like any nation-state, primarily seeks to further its national interests. A productive relationship between two great powers must be framed in terms of not just accommodating the other’s interests, but the costs of bringing them into collision. Diplomacy is often thought synonymous with flattery, but sometimes it requires a tactful forcefulness as well.