Finding common interest is the only way forward for China and the US
In US relations with China, there can be no ploys or tactics, as too much is at stake for both nations and the world
The details of the phone conversation between US president-elect Donald Trump and Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen remain unclear; which side initiated the call, what was discussed and what the follow-up will be. Such breaking of protocol by the American leader-in-waiting is unprecedented and worrying given that it was done without the guidance or advice of the state department or national security council, which monitor details of the nation’s foreign relations. Beijing’s response, in the circumstances, was moderate and measured, not the outrage that could have been expected. Uncertainties in Sino-US ties and the global economic outlook require all sides to take careful and cautious steps.
Trump, a businessman and political outsider, has shown little regard for established policies and regulations since being elected president last month. He does not take office until January 20 and has not announced his administrative team or strategies, yet is acting as if he is already in power and personally announcing what he says and does in the most public of places, Twitter. American officials had been careful since Washington severed ties with Taipei in 1979 to avoid direct contact, strictly observing the one-China policy. Tsai has gone out of her way since being elected in January to ignore that principle, refusing to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus and putting building overseas links ahead of those with the mainland.
A furious attack from Beijing would have been justified, but the foreign ministry chose its words carefully; it pointed out that “there is only one China in the world” and added that it had lodged “solemn representations with the US”. Tsai was treated less diplomatically, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi referring to her “petty gambit” in pushing for better relations with the US. He said the call was a “small action” that would not alter the one-China policy. He is right; the approach has fared the nations well in improving and strengthening relations and it would be disruptive and perhaps even dangerous to alter the balance.
Trump’s unpredictability needs to be better understood by Beijing. Whether he knowingly broke protocol with the call to test Beijing’s response, or was ill-informed or manipulated into doing something he does not understand by exploitative advisers, is unclear. But in relations with China, there can be no ploys or tactics, as too much is at stake for both nations and the world. They have to find common interests and work together for the common good.