In a single phone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2, President-elect Donald Trump broke with decades of diplomatic protocol. By speaking directly to Tsai and then calling her the “president of Taiwan” on Twitter, Trump implied that Taiwan is a sovereign state, threatening the diplomatic understanding that has underpinned U.S.-China relations for over 30 years. Since 1979, when the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, Washington has maintained a “one China” policy.
Was the phone call a diplomatic gaffe? Or a calculated demonstration of the new administration’s willingness to show diplomatic muscle? Either way, our research on Beijing’s record of prioritizing stable relations with new leaders dispels any myths that China would have inevitably challenged Trump — or that he should be applauded for a preemptive move.
The big question now is how China will respond. Many U.S. observers worry about a harsh pushback, given Beijing’s sensitivity on the Taiwan issue and the widely held public view within China that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. As Chinese President Xi Jinping recently told Kuomintang party officials from Taiwan, “The Communist Party would be overthrown by the people if the pro-independence issue was not dealt with.”
Yet our research points to two sources of moderation in Beijing’s foreign policy. These tendencies suggest Beijing will hold off on any radical countermeasures until after Trump takes office.
1) China often prioritizes diplomacy and tactical restraint over domestic nationalism. In an apparent effort to avoid public pressure to respond harshly, the Chinese government deleted messages about the Trump-Tsai conversation on WeChat, a popular social media and messaging platform. In the past, China also prevented nationalist protests over Taiwan, in part because the George W. Bush administration restrained Taiwan independence efforts in the mid-2000s.
However, should the Trump administration discontinue the long-standing U.S. “one China” policy, as some of his advisers have urged, the United States risks reigniting anti-American sentiment and protests — and possibly rupturing diplomatic relations with China. Should Trump’s contact with Tsai continue after the inauguration, it is not inconceivable that Beijing would think along the lines of Fudan University professor Shen Dingli, who said, “I would close our embassy in Washington and withdraw our diplomats. I would be perfectly happy to end the relationship.”
2) China prioritizes stability in relations with new leaders. Some U.S. observers celebrated the president-elect’s call with Tsai as preempting an inevitable test of the new president by Beijing. Many point to the April 2001 collision of a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet as evidence that Beijing sought to test the new Bush administration, and the March 2009 harassment of the surveillance ship Impeccable in the South China Sea as a test of the new Obama regime.
But we find little evidence that China actively seeks to test new leaders. Both incidents were part of an ongoing pattern of Chinese opposition to U.S. military patrols near China’s coastline, rather than a deliberate test of the new U.S. president. In both cases, Beijing sought to defuse public tensions and ensure that high-level diplomatic exchanges continued uninterrupted.
China will wait and see about Trump
China’s controlled early response to the Trump-Tsai conversation is consistent with our finding that Beijing tends to adopt a “wait-and-see approach” toward new leaders, like Trump, whose campaign pledges are inconsistent with their past behavior or the policy positions of their advisers and party elites. What happens next depends on whether the new leader acknowledges symbolically important principles, like the “one China” policy.
For example, both Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party predecessor, Chen Shui-bian (Taiwan’s president from 2000-2008), adopted relatively moderate campaign positions that contradicted their pro-independence reputations. Immediately after each election, Beijing exercised restraint, watching to see whether the new Taiwan president would acknowledge the principle that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to “one China.”
This restraint lasted throughout Chen’s first year in office. Wary of waiting for Chen to accept its “one China” formula, Beijing then shifted to a more confrontational approach, threatening to use force should Chen make any moves toward independence.
In June 2016, Beijing responded in a stern but measured manner to Tsai’s refusal to acknowledge the “one China” principle in her inauguration speech but has avoided countermeasures that might destabilize cross-strait relations. Beijing’s patience, however, may be wearing thin — Chinese officials attributed the Dec. 2 phone call to a “little trick” by Taiwan, rather than a deliberate move by Trump.
Beijing downplayed the phone call
China lodged an official protest after the phone call, urging the United States to continue abiding by its “one China” policy — but without directly criticizing Trump. Chinese official media downplayed the conversation, attributing it to the president-elect and transition team’s “inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs,” while warning that “a growing number of such moves can hinder the bilateral relationship in a major way.”
Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong predicts that Beijing will “probably take a wait-and-see attitude” to maintain “a relatively smooth relationship” during the transition period. Even the nationalist tabloid Global Times editorialized that “It is inappropriate to target Trump since he is still a president-elect …. it is best to engage in constructive conversations with him.”
Our research on China’s treatment of newly elected presidents suggests Beijing is not likely to capitalize on the new president’s lack of foreign policy experience to advance its interests, which include a sovereign claim over Taiwan. In our forthcoming analysis in the Washington Quarterly, we trace Chinese reactions to Trump’s campaign rhetoric on China, which was often inconsistent with the views of his policy advisers and the Republican establishment.
Some Chinese scholars optimistically inferred from Trump’s criticism of U.S. allies that he might abandon Taiwan. However, his isolationist bent contrasted sharply with the policy preferences of his advisers, who continued to support a forward approach in the Asia-Pacific and a stronger commitment to Taiwan. Given this inconsistency, Beijing is likely to proceed with caution — regarding the phone conversation as a negative sign, but not yet cause for retaliation.
The bottom line is that fears that China will “create a crisis for Trump in his first months in office” are misplaced. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Beijing tends to refrain from exploiting transition periods.
While Beijing may initially forgive some reckless actions, even ones that threaten to undo decades of careful diplomacy, they will not be forgotten. Intentional or not, such provocations shape Chinese perceptions and influence the policy stance Beijing will adopt once the new administration’s “grace period” expires.
A scenario where Trump plays the “Taiwan card” to force China’s hand in other areas — whether on trade or the South China Sea — is likely to backfire. Given the utmost importance that China places on the Taiwan issue, if Trump persists in undermining the diplomatic foundation of U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan, Beijing may very well forgo cooperation and risk conflict with the United States until a new leader occupies the Oval Office.
Kacie Miura is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT. Find her on Twitter @kaciemiura.
Jessica Chen Weiss is associate professor of government at Cornell. Find her on Twitter @jessicacweiss.