By Avishek Deb
US President Donald Trump once again provoked China by signing the Taiwan Travel Act on March 17, 2018. Earlier he had irked the Chinese officials by decreeing an increase in tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports when an investigation found China guilty of restricting foreign ownership, thereby forcing overseas companies to transfer technology. The report also found evidence of China engaging in intellectual property theft by supporting cyber-attacks to access trade secrets and copy world-renowned brands. In addition to increasing taxes, Trump plans to curtail Chinese investment in the US and take action against China in the World Trade Organization. Trump said that these were corrective measures to balance the multi-billion dollar trade deficit with China and counter their violation of fair trade policies. China, for its part, responded with increased import tariffs on US products like pork and wine worth $3 billion.
The latest dare by the USA
However, the latest directive by Trump risks exacerbating the already tense relationship between the two superpowers since it brazenly violates one of the cornerstone agreements underlying Sino-US cooperation. One of the key covenant underpinning their relationship is the joint proclamation in 1979 in which the US acknowledged but did not explicitly endorse the Chinese view of One-China that considers Taiwan to be its integral part. Notwithstanding, the US pledged to pursue an unofficial relationship with Taiwanese officials and support them with arms to ward off Chinese aggression. The Taiwan Travel Act seeks to change the status-quo by allowing American officials of all levels to pursue diplomatic relations with their Taiwanese counterparts and vice-versa, thus bypassing, and in a way, undermining Chinese authority over the self-governing island. The bill also encourages Taiwanese to conduct business in America.
The response from Beijing and Taiwan
Beijing did not take the legislation well, with the state media calling for a military intervention in Taiwan if the US went forward with its plan. Chinas Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang urged the US to abide by its One-China policy and withhold official communication with Taiwan. The Chinese Embassy in Washington issued a statement condemning the Act and said that they were strongly dissatisfied with it. Taiwan, on the other hand, welcomed the Act and issued a statement expressing gratitude and desire for developing deeper ties with the US.
This is not the first time that Trump has provoked China. Even before assuming office, he entertained Taiwans President Tsai Ing-Wens congratulatory phone call and discussed issues plaguing their relationship. He further suggested using the One-China policy as a bargaining chip to expand US influence in the disputed South China Sea. US warships continue to visit Taiwan despite repeated objections from China.
Why China refuses to back down
To understand the hostile response from PRC to enhanced cooperation between the US and the tiny island province of Taiwan, one needs to delve deep into the tumultuous history between Taiwan and China. The Republic of China (ROC) was established as the first Republic in Asia in 1911 after the Kuomintang Party (KMT) successfully overthrew the imperial system. A civil war started in 1927 between the governing Kuomintang Party and the rebelling Communist Party of China, and by 1949 the Communists were able to wrest most of the original ROC territories from the KMT, renaming them to Peoples Republic of China (PRC). The Republic of China (ROC) Government, which received Taiwan from Japan in 1945, fled there with the aim of retaking mainland China. Since then the two Chinas have existed without any formal peace treaty. Taiwan has always been self-governed since the end of the civil war in 1949, but the PRC regards the island as an estranged province awaiting reunification, with force if necessary. Standing up to foreign interference in its imperialistic ambitions has always been the bedrock of the Communist rule. China cannot afford to be seen as getting bullied as it could invite rebellion from other fringe groups in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. So it threatened the US of consequences commensurate with its One-China rhetoric such as refusing to rein in North Korea and using its veto power in the UN to block America-sponsored initiatives.
What’s at stake?
Trumps tough sanctions on North Korea seems to bear fruit as Pyongyang agreed to sit down with South Korean officials on March 6, 2018, to discuss nuclear disarmament. So far, the signal from North Korea has been positive. However, to move forward with any plan regarding North Korea would require Chinas full cooperation. China shares 880 miles and accounts for 90 percent of trade with North Korea. It is instrumental in enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang. Although a nuclear-armed rogue nation is not in the best interests of either the US or China, Beijing understandably feels insecure about US influence and US-backed allies lurking in its backyard. Thus it is not the best time to vex China when it could potentially jeopardise a prospective US victory in the Korean peninsula.
The future of democracy in Taiwan is at stake while the lives of 2.36 crore Taiwanese are being used as a bargaining chip in the trade war between China and the US. Even though Trump should be commended for standing up to Chinas unfair trade policy, he must avoid a confrontation with them and instead resort to diplomatic measures commensurate with fair trade laws of the WTO. Otherwise, the escalation could have a disastrous impact on the world economy.