Phone call fallout: how analysts see China reacting

Beijing is unlikely to view the exchange between Trump and Tsai as crossing a red line, they say. Rather, the leadership will take a wait and see approach, while seeking ways to punish Taiwan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 December, 2016, 7:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2016, 12:44am

The phone call between US president-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has renewed uncertainties over the future development of Sino-US ties.

Analysts said that Beijing doesn’t yet have enough leverage to blame Washington for the breach in diplomacy – no sitting US president or president elect has officially spoken with a leader of Taiwan since the United States switched diplomatic recognition in 1979. But Beijing was likely to exert more pressure on Taiwan, which Beijing sees as renegade province, they said.

The phone call, which came late on Friday and lasted about 10 minutes, also suggested Trump would elevate Taiwanese issues under his administration, a move Beijing would view with greater alarm than US arms sales to the self-ruled island, they added.

Zhang Yuquan, a professor of international relations at Sun Yat-sen University, said the talk set a very bad precedent for Sino-US ties under Trump, but Beijing may not rush to take counter measures against the US.

Trump talks by phone with Taiwanese president, risking major row with Beijing

“To Beijing, the breaking of the tradition is a blatant challenge to its sovereignty and it is a very serious matter,” Zhang said. “Beijing will watch what Trump does after the inauguration, but given that President Xi Jinping is tough, I don’t expect a good start for the coming Sino-US relationship.”

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, expected Beijing would downplay the phone call with the US, or use it as future leverage in its relations with Trump. But Taiwan was expected to suffer the most in its ties with Beijing.

“The Chinese leadership is too savvy and too cautious to interpret this as crossing a red line and making it into a cause of conflict before Trump has even been inaugurated,” Sullivan said.

“Trump will read up on his intelligence and find a way to back away from any possible misinterpretation that by taking this call the US has changed policy on Taiwan,” he said.

Trump’s phone call, arms sales and the future of Sino-US ties

“Taiwan on the other hand may suffer some consequences – an increase in pressure on allies, further decrease in Chinese tourists, pressure on Taiwanese businesses, and so on. But I see an incremental rise in pressure rather than a major overreaction.”

Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said the phone call was a move by Taipei to secure “some kind of affirmation that the US will shoulder previous defence responsibility for Taiwan”.

“Trump being elected president has created fear in Tsai due to his isolationist diplomatic style. Taiwan is eager to establish a connection with Trump’s office to remind the future US government not to abandon Taiwan,” Jin said.

Pang Zhongying, an international affairs expert at Renmin University, said the discussion was unexpected for Beijing. But going forward, moves by Trump and his advisers should be taken seriously instead of seen as just campaign rhetoric.

“Taiwan has again become a very tricky issue now. With the Kuomintang losing power, it has already become a very difficult problem for Beijing,” Pang said. “And with Trump raising the stakes with Taiwan, it will be a more serious challenge to Beijing.”

Shi Yinhong, a US expert, professor with Renmin University, said the phone call “is the first message sent by Trump on China issue after his presidential victory.

“It is a serious problem and also a reminder for some Chinese media and experts that maybe they were too optimistic about Trump’s attitude toward China. Beijing is very sensitive on Taiwan issues and the phone call will definitely have negative impact on future Sino-US relations,” he said.

“I expect the central government will send warnings to Trump and the U.S. government in certain measures, but meanwhile it will choose “wait-and-see” approach, remain patient to observe further development of the issue.”

“[Foreign Minister] Wang Yi’s message [before it was deleted from the MOFA website] didn’t mention Trump, reflecting China’s prudence.”

The phone call came after former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger met Xi on Friday in Beijing, a discussion which was expected to give Beijing greater insight into the direction of ties with Washington as Trump prepares to take office next month.

Kissinger helped to lay the groundwork for former US leader Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.

Both China and the US have sought to use talks with heavyweight former officials to convey messages, but the phone call has cast doubt on whether such a channel would continue to be effective, the experts said.