BEIJING – President-elect Donald Trump's questioning of long-established U.S. policy toward Taiwan is sparking a growing backlash in China and warnings about a potentially dangerous disruption in relations between the world's two largest economies.
Trump broke diplomatic precedent by talking on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 2. Then, this past weekend, he said he might use America's recognition of Beijing as leverage for gaining advantages in trade and other areas.
That is placing him perilously close to touching on China's bottom line that brooks no formal recognition of Taiwan or challenge to its claim to sovereignty over the island.
A look at the highly sensitive issue of Taiwan in China-U.S. relations:
WHERE THE U.S. STANDS
A former Japanese colony, Taiwan was taken over at the end of World War II by the Chinese Nationalist forces, who then moved their government to the island after fleeing the mainland in 1949 ahead of the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war. Beijing threatens to use military force to unify with Taiwan.
Washington, which changed its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, technically maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan, although U.S. law requires the government to ensure that the island has the ability to defend itself and to treat all threats to it as issues of national concern.
The U.S. and China have signed three communiques that guide Washington's approach to Taiwan policy, including acknowledging Beijing's claim to the island and pledging to reduce weapon sales to Taiwan as long as China takes a peaceful approach to unification.
However, a pair of former officials with the George W. Bush administration, Dan Blumenthal and Randall Schriver, recently argued in favor of re-examining that approach, a move that would deeply unsettle those overseeing relations in both Beijing and Washington.
WHY IT MATTERS
China's bottom line is that it will not allow any formal U.S. recognition of Taiwan's government or a change of position by Washington that would view the island as independent from China. China would likely respond to such a move by severing diplomatic ties and suspending cooperation with the U.S. across a wide range of military, economic and political issues.
Trump's statement is an "act of incredible brinksmanship and hubris — something that threatens some four decades of diplomacy that has preserved peace and promoted prosperity," Boston University China expert Joseph Fewsmith said in an email.
Although Beijing has so far been restrained in its response, should Trump continue on this tack, "China will react, and strongly," Fewsmith said.
China has cut off links with Taiwan's independence-leaning leader since her election in January over her refusal to endorse China's claim that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation. The number of Chinese tourists visiting the island has been drastically reduced and China has intervened to prevent Taiwan's participation in international forums ranging from the International Civilian Aviation Organization to world police body Interpol.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
As Trump seeks to carry out campaign promises to rebalance trade with China, Taiwan will serve as an "essential part of the mission," Miles Yu Maochun, an expert on Chinese politics at the U.S. Naval Academy, said in an email.
A re-evaluation of U.S. policy toward Taiwan might not be a bad thing if it more closely aligns with current realities, Yu said. At the time the U.S. broke official ties with Taiwan, the island was ruled by a military dictatorship that insisted it was still the sole representative government of all China. Today, Taiwan stands as a standard bearer for liberal, multi-party democracy.
"The Trump administration is a revolutionary departure from the established system of diplomatic nuances and 'strategic ambiguity,'" Yu said. "As such, it may well ditch the mother of all diplomatic double-talk called 'the One China policy.'"