President-elect Donald Trump is still to be inaugurated as President and already there are signs that he is testing the status quo on diplomatic relations between the United States, China and Taiwan. Not since US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously recognised the communist government of the People’s Republic has the relationship been questioned in such a way.
Far from being politically immature, Trump’s argument isn’t entirely baseless. Just as Nixon planned on using China as a bargaining chip against the Soviet Union, Trump may seek to do the same against China with Taiwan. The effectiveness and impact of such a strategy, however, remains far from assured. Whatever the case, the fact remains that any change regarding Taiwan, and by extension the South China Sea, is going to have profound implications on Australian foreign policy and national security.
On 4 December, President-elect Donald Trump received a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen, the current leader of Taiwan. Following the call, Trump later double downed on his attitude to China in a number of tweets and television appearances, questioning whether it was worth continuing to adhere to the ‘One China policy’ if Beijing wasn’t open to negotiation on trade and North Korea and continued its construction of a ‘massive fortress’ in the South China Sea.
For Trump, trade is the most important issue in the US relationship with China. For Beijing, on the other hand, the biggest issue according to the BBC is Taiwan. The question of Taiwan goes right to the heart of the legitimacy of the Communist Party and what it considers its territorial sovereignty.
Whether a pushback against Chinese assertiveness is the best way to meet foreign policy goals in the region remains to be seen. What is clear is that President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s much hyped ‘pivot to Asia’ hasn’t prevented or even slowed Beijing’s disregard for international maritime law.
And yet as Shen Dingli of Fudan University has argued, should Trump continue his high-level verbal dialogue with Taiwan, it’s highly unlikely he would be able to expect Chinese partnership and cooperation on issues as diverse as North Korea, climate change and Iran. As an incredibly tiny island nation, Taiwan would hardly be an effective partner in managing any of these global issues.
Australia & Chinese policy
This inability to affect change on international or regional issues without China is also at the heart of Australia’s current foreign policy conundrum. Despite Trump’s suggestion of greater assertiveness towards China, Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that Australia is prepared to go its own way on foreign policy, particularly over issues such as free trade and Taiwan. Indeed Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne has stated that Australia is committed to the One China policy.
And yet despite these statements, Australia’s current strategy towards China appears to be achieving little. Since Australia first developed its current strategy towards the South China Sea, China ‘has built six large islands, three substantial air bases and three sizeable electronic surveillance installations’. To put it more directly, China has ‘effectively moved 1100km south towards Australia and deep into the geographic heart of ASEAN’.
It’s China’s trade offensive, especially following America’s almost certain abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that’s continuing to draw other nations deeper into China’s orbit. Despite recent provocations, the prospect of a more open market and greater growth in the Asia-Pacific under the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has countries, including Australia, separating their attitude towards economic China from its actions in the South China Sea. The signing of a number of bilateral infrastructure deals between ASEAN nations and China further highlights the tension between economic dependency and regional stability.
With this in mind, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong’s recent comment asserting that Australia needs to reconsider its reliance on the United States and forge deeper connections with Asian nations is self-evident. Australia is already forging deeper relations with Asian nations, particularly Japan and Indonesia. The real reason Australia is drawn to Washington, aside from the deep cultural and historical connections, is that it’s the only nation able to uphold an Asia-Pacific underpinned on a rules-based order. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute outlines:
‘Russia’s too Eurocentric to shape the Asian security environment; Japan’s been—since World War 2—too withdrawn to articulate an independent strategic agenda; China seems to want a return to the Sinocentric Asia (and deferential neighbours) of yesteryear; and India’s been too under-developed and too geographically remote from the Asia–Pacific’s centre of gravity to do much order-building’.
There is simply no credible alternative to a United States presence in the region.
Despite championing an Asia-Pacific strategy predicated on the rule of international law, Australia’s foreign diplomacy has so far proven incapable of restricting Chinese militarisation in the South China Sea. So too has Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. In light of these failings, it’s not entirely baseless for Trump to question China’s continuing refusal to adhere to international norms with reference to Taiwan.
As Australia’s participation in the RCEP and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank indicates, Canberra is prepared to distinguish itself from the United States’ economic isolationism. As a small nation, we are unable to confront China and are dependent on its economic growth. This is why Trump’s comments, as callous and unorthodox as they are, present an important opportunity for China’s global ambitions and actions to be highlighted and further scrutinised.
Will Flowers Comino is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs