Opinion Column

Taiwan a pawn in Trump's chess game with China

By Gwynne Dyer, Special to Postmedia Network

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during her visit to the General Andres Rodriguez school to which the country donated computers, in Asuncion on June 29, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / NORBERTO DUARTENORBERTO DUARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during her visit to the General Andres Rodriguez school to which the country donated computers, in Asuncion on June 29, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / NORBERTO DUARTENORBERTO DUARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

"When two elephants fight against each other, the grass always suffers," said Yu-Fang Lin of the National Policy Foundation, a Taiwan-based think-tank, in an interview with the Washington Times. He was talking about the famous phone call between Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and Donald Trump on Dec. 2. If the U.S. and China get into a military confrontation, Lin suggested, it is Taiwan that will be crushed.

The Chinese Communist regime was outraged by that phone call, the first direct conversation between an official of the Taiwan government and an American president or president-elect in almost four decades, but it kept its fury in check.

Beijing made an official complaint to Washington, but China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the call as a "petty trick" by Taiwan. Chinese leaders, puzzled as everybody else by the Trump phenomenon, were soft-pedalling the issue and hoping the president-elect wasn't up for a fight.

The alternative was just too frightening to contemplate. Yu-Fang Lin called it the "madman" strategy: Trump making himself "appear very dangerous and hostile and very unpredictable to scare the (Chinese) leaders" into concessions on issues.

In an interview on Fox News last Sunday, the president-elect threatened to destroy the entire foundation on which US-Chinese relations have been based since 1979. "I don't see why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade."

Global Times, a tabloid attack dog linked to the Chinese Communist Party, said Trump was "as ignorant as a child." Official response was more polite, but equally severe.

"The Taiwan issue concerns China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and involves China's core interests," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang.

The "One China" policy dates back to 1979, when the United States broke its formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and transferred them to the People's Republic of China.

It was an "agreeable fiction" that allowed Washington to have its cake and eat it too.

In terms of both trade and military strategy, it was far more important for Washington to have diplomatic relations with China (current population 1.3 billion) than with Taiwan (22 million). However, it was politically impossible for the US to just abandon the Taiwan regime, which it had backed in the Chinese civil war and continued to support after that regime lost the war and retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949.

And so the "One China" policy. Everybody agreed that China could not be divided, but Taiwan could keep its de facto independence so long as it accepted that China must one day be reunited. The United States would break diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but could go on trading with it and even selling it arms. And everybody lived happily ever after, more or less.

China bent over backwards to get this deal, because at the time it was still a very poor country trying to open up trade ties with the West, and it was also mired in a military confrontation with the old Soviet Union. That confrontation is long over and China is no longer poor, but it has meticulously observed the terms of the deal for 37 years. Now Trump is threatening to cancel the deal if he cannot get better terms from Beijing.

Threatening to cancel a deal if he can't get better terms may have worked for Trump in business, but it's not just money at stake here. It's Chinese territory, the very notion of national unity, "core interests", as Beijing puts it. The Chinese regime won't yield on this because it can't, and if Trump pursues his "madman" strategy we are all in for a rough time.

-- Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England.