Ever since the end of the Chinese Civil War, both the Communist Party in Beijing and the Kuomintang in Taipei have pursued a ‘one China policy’. This has had the effect of tying the hands of world leaders and forcing them to choose which China they can openly recognise.
The UN had to make the decision, and after decades of recognising the Republic of China, switched recognition to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, after the US abandoned her long resistance to such a move. This came in the aftermath of Nixon’s dialogue with Mao.
Today, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressives, is slowly walking away from the official ‘one China policy’, as are many in the Republic of China. In spite of intransigent ideology, it is looking increasingly likely that unless the two competing Chinas adopt a singular political system, each will continue to go separate ways.
The Hong Kong example of reunification with Beijing doesn’t accurately reflect the Taipei/ Beijing schism, as Hong Kong was granted to Britain via treaty which expired peacefully in 1997. By contrast, the present ‘two China’ question is one which developed out of the political bifurcation of China during the Civil War of the 1940s. It is purely an internal Chinese problem.
Donald Trump has engaged in these issues before becoming President. He has done so in ways which indicate that he may shift the US, however slowly, to a two-China policy.
The fact that he publicly received a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen and later alluded to the fact that she would be invited to the White House, is an indication that the frank speaking Trump finds something rather hypocritical about America’s refusal to formally recognise Taiwan, whilst continuing to maintain good trading relations, including in arms deals.
However, his selection of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as the US Ambassador to Beijing, demonstrates that Trump is not looking to antagonise the People’s Republic of China. Branstad is known to be a personal friend of PRC President Xi Jinping. Both have publicly said a number of warm things about each other.
This good relationship is reflected in an official statement from the PRC Foreign Ministry, welcoming the appointment. The statement reads:
“Mr. Branstad is an old friend of the Chinese people, and we welcome his greater contribution to the development of China-US relations. The US ambassador to China serves as an important bridge linking the governments of the US and China. We are willing to work with whomever that takes this position to strive for the continued, sound and steady development of bilateral ties”.
Donald Trump’s seemingly warm interactions with Taipei and now his appointment of a friendly and knowledgeable ambassador to Beijing, shows that business is often a good model for diplomacy. Trump has never expressed any ideological preference in respect of the ‘two-China’ question. Instead he has referenced China only in terms of the ability of its trade negotiators to outwit those of the Obama administration at every turn. If anything, this is a kind of compliment, albeit one with certain implicit caveats.
If Trump’s China policy continues in this way, he may be able to maintain open relations with both Chinas, whilst minimising the inevitable tensions which will arise during such a process. For all of those worried that Trump would start favouring a Goldwater style entrenched position in favour of Taipei, this simply goes to show that they do not understand that the art of surprise is a central element in the ‘art of the deal’. In this sense Trump’s policy appears to be born out of pragmatism, nothing more, nothing less.
Still though, let us wait a few months or even years before handing The Donald a Nobel Peace Prize.