Cindy Fan is a UCLA professor of geography and Asian-American studies, and vice provost for international studies and global engagement. This post is part of the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” discussion with experts about President-elect Donald Trump’s possible policies toward China.
Although Trump’s questioning the “One China” policy may seem like a quick and clever way to get China’s attention, this decades-old policy’s ambiguity actually benefits United States, China and Taiwan.
By adhering to the policy, the United States is not forced to have a position on what “One China” means and how reunification could be accomplished, and can continue to engage with Taiwan economically and militarily. On the other hand, challenging the One China policy would give China a reason to resist United States’ military presence in the Asia Pacific. Beijing’s response to Trump’s muscle-flexing has been measured so far, but this wait-and-see approach could easily escalate into real antagonism should Trump persist to test China. It was less than 20 years ago that U.S.-China relations were described as a Cold War, culminating into the spy-plane incident near Hainan in 2001. China is much stronger now and probably more ready to clash with the U.S. if needed.
Taiwan benefits from the One China policy because unity with mainland China is but a theory, while the Republic of China is de facto self-ruled without interference from Beijing. Most Taiwanese and political parties there support the status quo. In fact, more than 2 million people from Taiwan, one-tenth of Taiwan’s population, live in mainland China because of economic opportunities, facilitated by language and cultural affinity. Any threats of Taiwan independence, on the other hand, would jeopardize such healthy interactions and heighten military tension across the Taiwan Strait.
Needless to say, the One China policy benefits the People’s Republic of China because it virtually rules out the possibility of Taiwan independence. And despite the policy’s ambiguity, it enabled China to claim political legitimacy in the United Nations and other world bodies while rendering Taiwan to be an outsider, even before China’s miraculous economic success took root.
What China — and for that matter both Taiwan and the U.S. — did not prepare for is a future U.S. president who apparently cares little about diplomacy in a traditional sense, for which ambiguity is a tool, and more about acting like a tough guy making a splash.