by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: White House/Public Domain

TENSIONS BETWEEN the US and China continue to increase, as illustrated in a recent series of statements by senior Trump administration officials, something that policy thinkers in Taiwan have clearly noticed. On the other hand, Trump himself continues to prove the largest wild card in US-China relations. This is something that many in Taiwan do not seem to realize, as many still see Trump as having an instrumental role in the stronger American stance against China that we have seen in past months in line with the broader idealization of Trump in Taiwan going back to the Trump-Tsai phone call.

Comments by American vice president Mike Pence against China were received positively in Taiwan. In these comments—apart from echoing highly dubious claims by Trump that China was seeking to intervene in American presidential elections—Pence criticized China for unfair trade practices against the United States, military expansion in the South China Seas, domestic authoritarianism, and coercing Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to break ties with it, among other things.

Chinese minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi (left) and American secretary of state Mike Pompeo (right). Photo credit: White House/Public Domain

Comments by the American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, during a dialogue held with his counterpart, Chinese minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi in Beijing over the weekend continued criticisms of China from high-ranking members of the Trump administration. Pompeo claimed that there were “fundamental differences” between the US and China on trade issues, as well as both international and domestic issues, which were of “great concern. China, on the other hand, called on America to halt its criticisms, claiming that Washington’s criticisms over Taiwan and US-China trade relations were “harm[ing] core interests”. Part of China’s ire was due to a recent arms sale between America and Taiwan in the past month, but economic concerns probably come first for China.

On the other hand, Pompeo would have a rather positive meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in in the same timeframe. According to the Moon administration, during his meeting with Kim, Pompeo agreed with Kim that a second Trump-Kim should take place in the near future.

By contrast, no meeting between Xi and Trump seems in the cards anytime soon. Wang and Pompeo met as representatives of their respective nations’ diplomatic establishments. However, similar meetings originally planned between the American secretary of defense, James Mattis, and a senior Chinese military official, as heading up their respective nations’ military establishments, and secretary of the treasury Steven Mnuchin and Chinese vice premier Liu He, as representing their respective nation’s financial establishments, were canceled.

This points to the fact that, because that it has successfully established durable ties with the Trump administration, North Korea has gained leverage to conduct its foreign policy vis-a-vis America independent of China to some extent. It is unknown to what extent North Korea sought approval from China before deciding on such actions, in the manner of how Kim sought approval from China before his first meeting with Trump through a rare trip to Beijing, then reported back to China by again visiting Beijing after the visiting.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) and Donald Trump (right). Photo credit: Public Domain

Beijing has continued to call for America to cease its provocations and to repair the US-China relations and this seems to have fallen on deaf ears, then. Nevertheless, it would be a grave mistake to think that the Trump administration has therefore firmly decided on an anti-China course of action and to relish in what are read as pleas of mercy from China as a result of successful economic policies to counter Taiwan, as many seem to think in Taiwan. This would be conflating wishful thinking for reality.

As has been argued by some analysts, Beijing canceling such meetings more likely obliquely that before pursuing high-profile meetings with the Trump administration or Trump himself, and it will wait until after American midterm elections to see as to their result, to understand the confluence of powers in America before conducting further negotiations with America. Trump may be weakened if the Democrats are highly successful in 2018 elections, possibly making Trump a lame duck president. Either way, Trump is very likely to meet with Xi at the G8 summit in Argentina November 30th, after midterm elections take place on November 6th. The Trump administration has canceled other possible potential meeting dates; one speculates whether officials in the Trump administration are themselves wary of a Trump-Xi meeting.

This is a sound strategy. After all, the action of waiting until after election season in order conduct negotiations with America is hardly particular to the diplomatic repertoire of China. Politicians of Soviet Union viewed American political leaders as prone to unpredictable political behavior during election season because of their need to grandstand before the public to secure votes, sometimes ramping up diplomatic tensions.

Beijing has likely taken note of the tendency of Trump to flip-flop between extreme hostility towards a nation and then suddenly shifting towards being extremely accommodating after a meeting between Trump and the leader of that country. This is, for one, why South Korean Moon Jae-in seems so intent on organizing a second meeting between Trump and Kim, in order to ensure that America does not suddenly shift towards policies of an extremely hawkish nature towards North Korea at the behest of hawks within the Trump administration.

Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photo credit: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office/CC

Beijing probably is suffering from its current trade war with China and hopes for it to end. But to take its present actions as only a sign of desperation, failing to look at China’s strategic intent, would be highly mistaken. In line with what is a clear, observable pattern of behavior by Trump, engineering a third meeting between Trump and Xi after their two meetings in 2017 could potentially have the effects of causing Trump to suddenly relent on the trade war. Such reversals have happened before, even just earlier this year. And, at the very least, even if forces within the Trump administration are able to restrain such a reversal by Trump, this would accentuate strains and tensions within what is already a highly fractured administration, and whatever the results are, this would be beneficial to China.

This is very likely what China is aiming for then—a view founded on a keen understanding of the Trump administration and of Donald Trump himself—while this seems to have passed by many in Taiwan. It seems that being on the receiving end of American aggression has led to more realistic views of America by China than from Taiwan, which still idealizes America as the de facto guarantor of its security from China.

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