History Shows Beijing Won’t Budge an Inch on Taiwan

Trump might want to use the island as a bargaining chip - but for China, it's a matter of principle

BEIJING - FEBRUARY 1972:  U.S. President Richard Nixon (L) toasts with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (R) during his trip to China in February 1972. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING - FEBRUARY 1972: U.S. President Richard Nixon (L) toasts with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (R) during his trip to China in February 1972. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

Much has been made of President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his statement in a recent interview that he does not understand “why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things,” Some have criticized Trump for unnecessarily shaking up a delicate understanding on Taiwan that has underpinned decades of U.S.-China relations.

Others have expressed a range of cautious optimism for Taiwan’s sake, to outright praise for Trump for refusing to “kowtow” to the Chinese. And some, including the student leaders of the 2014 Sunflower Movement that began in opposition to a Beijing-pushed trade deal, have decried the use of Taiwan as a “tool to score political points.” But the real issue is this: Trump’s gambit won’t work, because Beijing doesn’t believe it owes Washington anything for recognizing Taiwan as a part of China.

Trump is not the first president to try to use Taiwan as leverage with Beijing. Richard Nixon, while negotiating the opening of relations with China from 1971 to 1972, tried to link American concessions on Taiwan to Chinese cooperation in Vietnam. Around this time, thousands of U.S. troops were deployed in Taiwan as part of the United States’ mutual defense treaty with the Republic of China (ROC).

Nixon and Henry Kissinger knew one of Beijing’s greatest priorities was obtaining American recognition of Taiwan as a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and getting U.S. troops off the island. Thus, they decided to link the withdrawal of American troops from Taiwan to China’s pledge to help the United States achieve an “honorable exit” from the Vietnam War. The two American leaders suggested to their Chinese counterparts that they should pressure their ally, North Vietnam, to sign a peace agreement with the United States if they wanted a quick exit of U.S. troops from Taiwan.

But Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai categorically rejected the quid pro quo. Zhou insisted that because Taiwan was a rightful part of China, Beijing had no reason to reward the United States for leaving the island. In fact, Zhou said, making such a demand was as ridiculous as China taking exception to the United States’ sovereignty over Hawaii or Long Island. While the bargain failed, rapprochement proceeded with a general understanding that the United States would gradually withdraw its troops from Taiwan. Beijing, however, continued to support North Vietnam’s war efforts and provided significant amounts of military assistance to its ally between 1971 and 1973.

Ronald Reagan also tried to strike a bargain with Beijing that involved Taiwan when he first arrived in office. Reagan had campaigned on the platform that the Carter administration had conceded too much to the Chinese while normalizing relations with the PRC in 1979, and suggested he would re-establish official relations with the ROC if he were elected. After assuming office with this tough stance, the Reagan administration was immediately obliged to confront the issue of arms sales to Taiwan, and especially with the question of whether it would proceed to sell FX fighter jets as had been discussed during the previous administration.

Beijing objected not only to the potential sale of the FX, but also to all arms sales to Taiwan as an infringement upon Chinese sovereignty. With the knowledge that Beijing coveted advanced American-made, dual-use technology and weapons, the Reagan administration decided to offer an implicit bargain to their Chinese counterparts. Beijing was told it would be granted the status of a “friendly, non-aligned state,” making it eligible to purchase American arms if it acquiesced to the United States’ arms sales to Taiwan.

Even though the reward was very appealing to the Chinese side, they immediately rejected the bargain, because accepting the deal would not only undercut China’s sovereignty, but also damage the Chinese leadership’s standing among their citizens. Furthermore, the Chinese refused to move forward with any other aspects of the bilateral relationship until the issue of Taiwan arms sales was resolved. Finally, after months of negotiations, the two sides agreed to the Aug. 17, 1982, communiqué, which resolved the bilateral impasse with the United States’ declaration that it would gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan in light of China’s declaration that it would strive for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question.

China simply will not engage in bargains that call into question its sovereignty over Taiwan. Trump’s attempt to use the One China policy as a bargaining chip rests on the false assumption that Beijing sees the policy as something to be negotiated. This is perhaps one of the few times the routinely hyperbolic Global Times can be taken literally when it states that the notion of “One China” cannot be “bought or sold.” China has stood by this principle consistently, even in the face of enticing deals.

Nixon and Reagan attempted their bargains when China was both weaker in the global arena and less vulnerable to domestic criticism. Today, the PRC is a global power that is recognized by the vast majority of states as the official government of China, many of which see Beijing as a critical trade partner they cannot afford to antagonize. At the same time, Chinese leaders are much more vulnerable at home due to the rise of officially encouraged nationalism, a slowing economy, and mounting societal grievances. As a result, Chinese leaders know they cannot afford to look weak in front of their own citizens. All of this makes Taiwan a genuine red-line issue that cannot be manipulated to elicit Chinese cooperation in other areas.

If Trump truly seeks to win China’s cooperation on trade, North Korea, and in the South China Sea, he should use his business acumen to sell his ideas and desired policies to Beijing instead. He should persuade the Chinese that evening the playing field for international businesses in China, doing more to pressure Pyongyang, and refraining from provocative activities in disputed territories are in China’s ultimate interests. The best way to win genuine and long-term cooperation from Beijing, or any partner for that matter, is to change leaders’ minds about how best to pursue their state’s fundamental interests.

Trump should also realize that the biggest victim of an ill-conceived bargaining strategy will be the Taiwanese people. Among those who have billed Trump’s recent maneuvers as “brilliant” are some who believe his moves can serve as the beginning of stronger U.S. ties with Taiwan. They are wrong. As Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former head of the American Institute in Taiwan writes, “The United States does a lot with and for Taiwan, and as long as we do it behind the façade of unofficial relations, China does not complain.”

Taiwan understandably desires deeper ties with the United States and greater diplomatic space in the international arena. And there are ways in which the United States can help Taiwan, a friend and fellow democracy, on such efforts. But as history tells us, destabilizing the long-standing agreement with Beijing on the One China policy is certainly not one of them.

Photo Credit: AFP/Staff

Patricia M. Kim is a Senior Policy Analyst with the China Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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