Well, Donald Trump did warn us. Now, in his own inimitable way, seven weeks away from his inauguration — and about two weeks before the Electoral College must ratify his win — the US President-elect is strongly indicating that his administration will make some major shifts in US policy towards China.
None of this is good news for Australia, which has been caught flat-footed and a little exposed over Trump’s surprise 10-minute phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on December 3, which had diplomats scurrying and the globe buzzing,
Then he doubled down with one of his (in)famous, thin-skinned Twitter rants, following wrong-headed criticism of his being the first US president or president-elect to speak to their Taiwanese equivalent since the US acceded to one of China’s more successful fictions, the One China Policy, which states there is only one China and it is the People’s Republic of China.
In 1949, Taiwan styled itself as the Republic of China, after millions of Chinese friendly to the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, fled to the island after the KMT’s defeat by the Mao Zedong led Communists in 1949. It has never been controlled by the Communist Party.
Since then, Taiwan has emerged in the past two decades from KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek’s often brutal dictatorship into a remarkable exemplar par excellence of how to transition such a regime peacefully into a flourishing democracy — one that has changed leaders (and ruling parties) four times.
Looking back, the One China policy now looks to have been the beginning of China’s long strategy to claim back the Asia-Pacific as its own “backyard” — the first slice in its so-called “salami strategy”, which involves making its moves incrementally, in small slices that would not, taken individually, engender any strong reaction, lest it be seen as overreaction.
Once Taiwan was successfully sidelined from global initiatives and refused recognition by China, it had become an effective non-country. This is despite fulfilling all the prerequisites of self-governance: its own legal system and its own military. Once Taiwan was sidelined, China began chipping way at the seven competing claims — including one by Taiwan — to the South China Sea. And in the effective blink of an eye, it had military installations on artificial islands.
Trump’s move to talk with Tsai is, at least for now, an unexpected breath of fresh air. Policy change is long overdue. And the truth is that the US and Taiwan are friends and allies with far more in common that the US and the PRC.
Indeed, no more stark illustration of this was needed than when US Congress — coincidentally the same day of the Trump call — voted to sell its next shipment of weapons to Taiwan. This might have been a signal that the US will publicly lift its relationship with Taiwan — and it was the last Republican president, George W. Bush, who assured Tapei that the US would back the country in the event of any move by China to annex what it, in supreme disillusion, regards as an errant province.
Australia, on the other hand — which holds itself up as being a bastion of freedom and democracy in the region, has let its relationship with Taiwan slip. The regular ministerial visits of the 1990s and before have completely dried up since the Howard government ended. Australia has ceded any moral authority it had with Taiwan by successive governments’ timid decisions to effectively act as vassal for Chinese propaganda about the island, declining to make any implicit protest in support of a one of the region’s few thriving democracies with an independent judiciary and an unhindered press.
Taiwan, a country with a similar population and values to Australia, has had its thriving trade taken for granted; rather than being seen as a dividend of hard-won democracy, it is treated as a diplomatic backwater, a situation that appears to have been just to hard politically for the mainland-obsessed legislature and bureaucracy.
Of course, with all things Trump, no one quite knows what comes next — and quite apart from his being able to tip the delicately balanced US economy the wrong way, that is where his presidency is likely to be a full-time headache for US allies. And perhaps this is the most urgent warning in the Tsai call and its aftermath — policy by Twitter that, unfortunately can reap the same consequences of long-term, well thought-out policy changes,
For now, it’s likely Canberra will be far more concerned with the potential king hit on the Chinese economy — and Australia’s Treasury coffers — that would be triggered by the implementation of a China tariff than the Tsai phone call, but that would be the usual short-sightedness.
And it is unclear where China — whose government lowered the temperature in its public statements, putting the call down to Trump’s inexperience — will come down in terms of a real reaction. Beijing should, of course, by its own reckoning, let this one through to the keeper but will more likely, in the CCP’s adolescent, vindictive approach to diplomacy, vent its displeasure on Taiwan.
Beijing made its position as clear as crystal: “Taiwan-related issues are the most important and sensitive part of the China-US relationship,” ministry spokesman Lu Kang told the daily foreign media briefing. “We believe Trump’s transition team is very clear on that.” He added that Beijing had contacted “the relevant party” to express its displeasure.
There is no time like the present to start rectifying all this, but maybe we will wait until February when everyone’s back from holidays. Who knows what the Trump White House will have done by then?