One of the hallmarks of this blog since it launched in 2013 is that I never write on the same topic twice in a row. It’s part of my identity. I aspire to help the reader understand China and since no country or culture is one-dimensional, I believe variety is essential and symbolically appropriate.
This post is an exception. But the 2016 US presidential election was also an exception on many levels and it set the stage for breaking with tradition. Based on the behavior of President-elect Trump during his transition to office, moreover, I doubt very much it will be the last.
Breaking with four decades of precedent, the president-elect took a congratulatory phone call from the leader of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, on December 2, 2016. And as I noted in my last post, the Chinese leadership in Beijing took strong exception to the unprecedented move but otherwise appeared to signal that all would be forgiven as long as it didn’t happen again. (China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province.)
In the days that followed the phone exchange, however, the president-elect demonstrated in no uncertain terms just how unconventional he would be as the leader of the Western world. He has gone on record noting that he feels no obligation to accept the “one China” policy that has guided US diplomatic behavior since the US transferred official diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
With a population of 25 million people it would seem unlikely that Trump would ultimately jeopardize the US relationship with the world’s second largest economy and the US’s third largest export market. And what would be the justification? Principle? To date the president-elect has not outlined any over-riding personal principles that would seem to support such extreme action.
Except, that is, his fundamental belief in the art of the deal.
As several observers have noted, the president-elect is more than likely using Taiwan as a bargaining chip to extract trade and other concessions from Beijing. And that would be a very, very dangerous strategy indeed.
In my book, Understanding China, I advised Westerners to avoid negotiating directly with the Chinese unless they have significant experience in Chinese culture and negotiation. Westerners negotiate to a win-win. The Chinese, on the other hand, negotiate to a win-lose. It’s an issue of worldview and culture.
The Chinese, I am confident, will call Trump’s bluff. They will not negotiate over Taiwan. The only question is whether or not they will take pre-emptive action to clearly demonstrate their resolve.
We must remember that Chinese political strategy today is built on the foundational memory of the Century of Humiliation. That is the period from 1840 (the First Opium War launched by Britain) to 1949 (Mao Zedong’s victory over the Nationalists), when China suffered mightily during invasions by imperialist Japan and the West.
It was a particularly humiliating period for China because Chinese culture turns on obligation, and obligation gives rise to the notion of “face.” Embarrassment is the ultimate suffering.
The Century of Humiliation is often alluded to by Chinese President Xi Jinping and remains a vivid and bitter memory for even the youngest of Chinese, as witnessed this past week by moving memorials to the 1937 Massacre of Nanjing (also known as the Rape of Nanjing due to the number of rapes that occurred), during which 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese, including many entire families, were massacred by invading Japanese forces. (Nanjing was called Nanking at the time and was the capital of China.)
To put Taiwan on the table as part of a larger economic negotiation, in other words, is both insulting to the average Chinese citizen and ignores the basic realities of Chinese history and culture. The desire to rebuild face has propelled Chinese nationalism among all age groups to a level that most in the West would find unfathomable.
The Global Times, a state-run newspaper ultimately controlled by the Communist Party, editorialized earlier this week, that “The Chinese mainland should display its resolution to recover Taiwan by force… If the Chinese mainland won’t pile on more pressure over realising reunification by using force, the chance of peaceful unification will only slip away.”
Just words? Perhaps. But the best compass of truth when assessing potential threats is rationality. And this approach does make sense. Who can honestly say what President-elect Trump will do in the future? There is no body of past political behavior to gauge the risk by. And, in fact, the case can be easily made that the risk of confronting the US on such a scale will arguably be less when the president-elect’s term of office is in its infancy and Americans are overwhelmingly focused on the economy.
I am not a military expert or a career diplomat. My gut instinct, however, based on nearly a decade of living and working in China, is that China has long had the military power to vanquish Taiwan in a matter of days, if not hours. And the Taiwanese know this, raising the distinct possibility that not a single shot will be necessary once intent is clearly established.
The reality is, moreover, that China does not need to take military action to make Taiwan suffer for its transgression. It has many diplomatic and economic tools (e.g. Prohibiting travel between the Mainland and Taiwan.) in its arsenal to effectively crush Taiwan economically and emotionally. And there is relatively little the US could do about it. Taiwan could not even appeal to the United Nations as it is not a member and Beijing sits on the veto-empowered Security Council (as does Russia).
Let us hope that all of this is simply part of the president-elect’s learning process and that the tensions will soon be dialed back. If this is simply a test of Chinese resolve, so be it. In business, however, the failure of a negotiating gambit merely results in the loss of a deal. In diplomacy, the stakes are much higher.
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