Remember Trump’s “One China” Threat? It Was a Stupid Bluff

The president’s defenders said he had a plan to negotiate better terms with the Chinese. Turns out there was no plan.

American president Donald Trump reviews troops at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, February 6
American president Donald Trump reviews troops at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, February 6 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

Remember when Donald Trump, then newly elected, accepted a phone call from the president of Taiwan and his apologists told us it was all part of a masterplan? If it meant revising the “One China” policy, they said, well, maybe that needed revising anyway? Who’s China to say which countries America can and cannot recognize!

My interpretation was that Trump was simply ignorant of the sensitivities of Sino-Americans relations and had blundered his way into a diplomatic incident.

Trump’s first phone call with the president of China, Xi Jinping, supports that contention.

The White House’s readout of the conversation, which took place on Thursday, says, “Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘One China’ policy.”

Keeping up appearances

For the uninitiated: The “One China” policy refers to the diplomatic pretense that there is only one China, even though both the communist regime in Beijing and the republican government in Taipei claim to represent it.

Everybody can see there isn’t “one China”, but it is the sort of thing we pay lip service to in order to make the world go round. It’s the reason mainland China can live with American support for Taiwan.

But keeping up appearances matters. China fears that recognition of Taiwan may encourage separatist movements in Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang. This a red line for them. Other countries would be ill-advised to treat it lightly.

Weak hand

Fred Kaplan, a national security columnist, writes for Slate that Trump’s back-and-forth on the issue reveals he’s far less of a negotiating expert than he claims.

As soon as Trump stated publicly that he was using the “One China” policy as leverage, the Chinese knew they didn’t have to take him seriously.

“He’d pretty much winked and nudged that he was bluffing,” writes Kaplan.

Xi reportedly told the Americans he wouldn’t even speak with Trump unless the new president reaffirmed the “One China” policy.

It’s good Trump conceded the point. But it’s unfortunate, Kaplan argues, that “after so avidly embracing an alternative reality and making it part of a tough stance toward China generally, he dropped it so swiftly in exchange for nothing but a presidential phone call.”

Trump now has the worst of both worlds: No change in Taiwan’s status and no respect from the Chinese.