World·Analysis

Taiwan call 'end of wishful thinking' about U.S.-China relations under Trump

Many in China are starting to fear that, far from ignorant, U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has a deliberate strategy — one that's more rash than irrational.

Many in China fear the president-elect's call with Taiwan leader reveals deliberate intention to 'test China'

President-elect Donald Trump's conversation with Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, last Friday is being interpreted in China as a calculated anti-Beijing move. (Evan Vucci/Chinag Ying-ying/Associated Press)

The headline in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, The People's Daily, sums up a common view: "Trump's Irrational China Bashing Shows his Ignorance of China."

But many here are starting to fear that, far from ignorant, U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has a deliberate strategy — one that's more rash than irrational. 

"I think this is truly a wake-up call for Beijing," says Wang Dong, professor of international studies at Peking University. "I think there's been too much wishful thinking about Donald Trump in China."

For many here, that optimism was swept away late last week when Trump took a phone call from the leader of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. He defended it as nothing more than a congratulatory call.

But it did mark the first time a U.S. president or president-elect spoke directly to his counterpart in Taiwan, certainly since 1979. That's when Washington broke off official diplomatic relations with Taipei and recognized Beijing as the government of China.

Ever since, U.S. leaders have mostly avoided big shows of support for Taiwan, trying to avoid antagonizing China.

Not so Donald Trump.

The call between Trump and Taiwan's leader is stirring up nationalism and hostility in China, where the country's iconic red flags can be seen flying in Tiananmen Square. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Calculated move, says critic 

"This is a very deliberate move, calculated to test China," Wang says. "If China reacts strongly, then he might back off a bit. But if he perceives China to be soft he will become bolder."

Trump followed up the call with tweets underlining U.S. military support for Taiwan. He also attacked China for its anti-U.S. monetary policy and a "massive" military buildup in the South China Sea.

Beijing's official response so far has seemed subdued, perhaps even a bit confused.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi initially dismissed the call with Taipei as just "a petty trick."  

Taiwan-related issues are the most important and sensitive part of China-U.S. relations. We believe Trump's transition team is very clear on that.- Lu Kang, China foreign ministry spokesman

But his government later filed a tougher formal complaint with Washington and sent messages of displeasure directly to Trump's team of advisers.

"Taiwan-related issues are the most important and sensitive part of China-U.S. relations," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in an official briefing. "We believe Trump's transition team is very clear on that."

Taiwan sits in a strategic location between the East China Sea and the South China Sea. China still considers it part of its territory. Previous attempts to assert its independence have triggered threatening military exercises and threats.

Several members of that team are sympathetic to Taiwan and believe China's aim of one day retaking the island needs to be challenged.

That's considered a "dangerous" idea in Beijing because, despite Taiwan's sovereign government, China still considers it part of its territory. Previous attempts to assert its independence — even in small, symbolic ways — have triggered threatening military exercises by the Chinese navy and threats to turn Taiwan into a "sea of fire."

And that was in an era when China's military and diplomatic power was much weaker than it is now.

Tsai Ing-wen was elected earlier this year and is in favour of an independent Taiwan. (Ashley Pon/Getty Images)

"Beijing's message will be: 'This is a matter of China's core interests,'" says Wang. "They would say, 'If you cross the line, then definitely we are going to respond very strongly.'"

'Time to show our muscle'

Chinese public opinion also seems to be turning against Trump.

Throughout the election, he was seen as a businessman with whom China could sit down and negotiate. He did threaten China with high trade barriers, but that was considered campaign politicking.

The discussion on China's internet is now much more hostile, echoing the nationalism that Beijing has been stoking on a number of issues tied to Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"Trump, if you go further with the Taiwan issue, let's see what's going to happen," posts one user called Zuo Deng Shan Bo. "China does not fear a war."

Another user, called Never Walk a Dog, writes, "It's time to show our muscle. Right now, China is just being a paper tiger."

Anti-China rhetoric won't last, says diplomat

But will the tough talk from Trump continue?

Veteran U.S. diplomat Donald Paal says past experience suggests it won't. He served in both Taiwan and Beijing, and also advised former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. on China policy.

He says the hard rhetoric toward Beijing usually doesn't last beyond 18 months in any administration.

They will get their revenge as a cool dessert.- Donald Paal, veteran U.S. diplomat

"There's self-correction that takes place when the American business community and other interests intervene, and the notion of being tough on China has exhausted itself," says Paal.

Many means to cause trouble

"You start getting more co-operation from Beijing, the U.S. president needs to meet with the leaders and get results. Then you start seeing a different approach, very traditional stands that have been the common denominator in the latter half of almost every presidential term."

Besides, he says, if Trump carries through on any of his threats — whether it be trade sanctions or a swing toward Taiwan — China has many means to cause the U.S. trouble.

"They may not do it in hasty fashion," Paal says. "But they will get their revenge as a cool dessert."

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic