Even though I voted against Donald Trump and think he could be dangerous for American democracy, I like to keep an open mind about his potential policy pivots. Bureaucratic thinking gets stuck in routine. Case in point, not talking to Taiwan’s elected leader in order to placate the mainland communist dictatorship. Taiwan acts much like an independent country now, with a thriving economy to boot. So why not simply acknowledge those facts in the face of Chinese intransigence?
There is a strain of foreign policy thinking with roots in Nixon and Kissinger’s famous relationship that could prove useful. The madman theory of diplomacy postulates that you can bargain better by keeping your enemies off balance. The question becomes, what do we want from our relationship with China? More specifically, what does Trump want?
- We all agree that China could apply more pressure to North Korea in order to shut down its nuclear program.
- Likewise, China could have a less aggressive posture in the Pacific vis-a-vis Taiwan and the Philippines.
- Where I don’t agree with Trump is that we somehow need some better trade deal with China whereby they export less to the United States. Maybe more access to China’s market would be good, but I firmly believe we already benefit enormously from cheap Chinese production. In any case, this is a point that Trump would want to win, so I’ll keep it in the list.
How could we pressure China to move on those three points?
- Ask nicely
- Keep China ring-fenced with multilateral defense treaties
- Threaten tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States
- Engage in military exercises with our Pacific allies
- Push Japan and South Korea towards joining the nuclear club
- Recognize Taiwan as an independent state
- Promise to defend Taiwan as an independent state and station troops there
I’ve attempted to order these pressure points from least to most offensive to China. We already do 2 and I’m sure 4 comes up time to time. 6 and 7 seem like red lines that China would risk war to keep from happening. 5 is in the danger zone, but it would be hard for China to launch a war simply to affect the nuclear status of its neighbors. What cards does China hold? They could:
- Ask us nicely
- Try to break up our multilateral alliance system in the Pacific with a countervailing alliance
- Engage in military exercises threatening to our Pacific allies
- Hack the US government or RNC/Trump systems in an effort to embarrass the new President
- Allow North Korea a longer leash in antagonizing the West, perhaps by giving them longer-range ballistic missile technology
- Launch an invasion of Taiwan
- Launch an attack on the US throughout the Pacific
China’s thinking on any of these will be pulled between its long view and it’s pride. In the long view, Chinese leaders seem to understand that they are a future superpower, but they aren’t quite there yet. Therefore it makes sense for them to play nice and bide their time. On the other hand, China stokes its people’s nationalism. It’s easy to imagine two wings of the Chinese leadership: one pushing to bide time, the other pushing for a vigorous defense of Chinese interests.
Which side wins depends, to some extent, on the cards the US plays first. If the United States pushes China quietly and diplomatically to rein in North Korea or open it’s market, China might react by pushing quietly itself for fewer military sales to Taiwan. That could be the outline of one of the “great deals” Trump always talks about.
But the Trump philosophy on deal making is to stake out the most extreme position and then work back from there. If you’re a major business dealing with customers or small contractors, this sort of negotiation can work wonders. Just look at Walmart.
Between nation states this tactic appears more warlike. When I think of examples, I think of Austria-Hungary demanding the submission of Serbia, Germany demanding the Sudetenland, Russia occupying the Crimea, the positions staked out by Israel and Palestine, etc. The common thread is that all these situations resulted in war.
China views its territorial integrity as sacred. An analogy could be if China said that Hawaiian independence was on the table in the start of their negotiations with the United States. By staking out such an extreme position as Chinese territorial integrity at the start of negotiations, Trump has made it more likely that China will opt for a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. After all, what better way to take Taiwanese independence off the table than to change facts on the ground?