US-China relations

US should not allow Taiwan issue to hurt its all-important relationship with China

Zhou Bo calls on America’s incoming president, Donald Trump, to tread carefully on a new US law authorising top military exchanges with Taiwan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 2017, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 January, 2017, 7:29pm

It is like opening Pandora’s box right in front of Beijing: on December 23, outgoing US President Barack Obama signed into law the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2017. Section 1284 of the act authorises the secretary of defence to carry out a programme of exchanges between the United States and Taiwan involving senior military officers and top officials. This allows generals or flag officers of the US military on active duty, as well as Pentagon officials higher than the level of assistant defence secretary, to visit Taiwan.

Such a move is far more consequential than Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call to President-elect Donald Trump. The call, the first of its kind since 1979, is viewed by Beijing as a violation of the “one China” policy. The permitted US-Taiwan military exchanges, juxtaposed with American arms sales authorised by the Taiwan Relations Act, may well become another persistent irritant that will haunt China-US relations in years to come.

The exchanges, allowing threat analysis, force planning, logistical support, intelligence collection and analysis, present a sharp contrast to the authorisation act for the fiscal year 2000, which restricts the US military’s exchanges with the Chinese military in 12 similar but more sophisticated operational areas, such as force projection operations, advanced combined-arms and joint combat operations and advanced logistical operations. In fact, if the 2000 act is implemented to the letter, there won’t be any significant exchanges between the Chinese and the US military except in humanitarian areas. Capitol Hill fears the exchanges might help enhance the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities and “create a national security risk” for the US.

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Trump likes to say that he is unpredictable, but US-Taiwan relations are predictable. The stronger China becomes, the less the US can play the Taiwan issue as a wild card. Today, China is an indispensable partner for the US in addressing major global issues, including counterterrorism, climate change and the North Korean nuclear issue. America’s relationship with China far outweighs its ties with Taiwan. The last thing the US wants is to become involved in a war triggered by Taiwan’s move for independence.

Taiwan’s security doesn’t lie in its military exchanges with America. Rather, it depends on how much trust mainland China places in the Taiwanese leader. The Taiwan-US military exchanges, seen against the growing strength of the mainland military forces, are only symbolic in nature. Yes, the phone call between Tsai and Trump might be a “breakthrough” for Taiwan, but it couldn’t be more expensive. In December last year, the government of Sao Tome and Principe decided to cease its recognition of Taiwan, and instead recognise the People’s Republic of China. This is widely taken as Beijing’s warning to Tsai who, unlike her predecessor, still dodges acknowledging the “one China” policy by shrouding it in calculated ambiguity.

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If the latest US act won’t help the Taiwanese government as much as it wishes, the 2000 act has proved to be no strict barrier to military relations between China and the US. The reason is simple: the US military cannot afford not to have exchanges with the PLA. Without exchanges such as mutual visits, policy talks and joint training, the US military won’t be able to monitor and engage an ever stronger PLA. Without mutual understanding, the danger of miscalculations, as proved in a series of incidents including the deadly J-8/EP-3 collision in 2001, will also grow.

Taiwan’s security doesn’t lie in its military exchanges with America. Rather, it depends on how much trust mainland China places in the Taiwanese leader

This is why the Pentagon sometimes “violated” the act, as claimed by some congressmen, to invite the PLA to attend the US-led Rim of the Pacific, and Cobra Gold, exercises. The two militaries also held joint exercises to counter piracy, as well as in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. During the G20 Summit in Hangzhou ( 杭州 ), China and the US announced that they would work together to build capacity for peacekeeping activities in African countries. The two militaries have started to discuss counterterrorism efforts. It remains to be seen whether they can one day join hands in combating international terrorist organisations such as Islamic State.

The 2017 act raises a dilemma for Trump. If he chooses to ignore it, Congress will push him from behind; if he chooses to honour it, it will definitely sour relations with China. So far, China’s response towards him has been calm but measured. But Beijing has made it crystal clear that cooperation with the US “would be out of the question” if Trump were to forsake America’s long-standing position that Taiwan is part of “one China”.

It won’t be long before Trump comes to realise, while tiptoeing on the tightrope of the Taiwan issue, that maintaining balance is a delicate art for the performer.

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the Centre of China-American Defence Relations at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science