Spearhead Analysis – 24.04.2017
By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
On April 7 the first face-to-face meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping was held at the Trump-Xi summit. Organized at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Florida, the meeting was meant to be a ‘bonding exercise’ set up by the Trump administration.
The summit closed with pledges made to increase cooperation and establish new frameworks for US-China dialogue.
In a pre-summit press conference Senior Trump Administration Officials confirmed that, contrary to popular opinion, ‘One China’ will not be discussed at great lengths in the meeting. Additionally, Matthew Pottinger, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, was quoted saying that Washington will not trade good relations with Taiwan for China’s support on the North Korea issue.
The ‘One China’ policy remains one of the greatest concerns for China and Taiwan.
Tensions between the island and China are running high. China is apprehensive of the new US administration and the initial indication that Trump may be prepared to use the ‘One China’ policy as a bargaining chip in the US-China relationship. China cannot risk a permanent separation from Taiwan, which it fears may jeopardize the ‘China dream’ and have China appear weak.
For China, the ‘One China’ policy has always been a precondition for bilateral interaction with the US and not a policy to be discussed during these interactions. It can be deduced then that perhaps US-China interaction from before the summit may hold the more interesting details of the US stance on the Taiwan issue. Surely, the topic must have come up.
Lately, the Trump administration has become less inclined to discuss US support to Taiwan– a change of attitude that has surprised many considering how President Trump started his presidency with the bold and much-talked-about Dec 2016 call to the President of Taiwan.
In July of last year, the Republican Party’s campaign platform claimed that the US would continue its relations with Taiwan based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The Six Assurances given to Taiwan were also reaffirmed.
The Six Assurances guarantee Taiwan that arms sales between US and Taiwan will continue under the August 17 communique of 1982 and that the US will not turn to China regarding the matter.
On March 7, the Acting Spokesperson of the State Department Mark Toner at a press briefing seemed reluctant to respond when asked a direct question regarding Tillerson’s comments on ‘One China’ in his nomination hearing and the role of the Six Assurances in the ‘One China’ policy under the Trump administration. Attempting to evade the question, he said that the US will not change its cross-Strait policy.
On April 5, an anonymous senior official at the White House said that the One China policy Trump has reaffirmed is based on the three communique and the TRA. A day later Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, also did not mention the Six Assurances in her statement on U.S. commitment to Taiwan.
This may be indicative of a possible policy shift since the Republican Party last openly expressed confidence in the Six Assurances.
Trump has been the first American president since George H. W. Bush to meet with a Chinese president in a bilateral context so soon after taking office. Since Bill Clinton all American presidents have met Chinese presidents first in a multilateral context, before agreeing to a bilateral meeting.
The first arrangement for a bilateral meeting usually came at least a year after a new US president settled in the White House; George W. Bush waited one year before meeting with Jiang Zemin and Barack Obama met Hu Jintao two years after the president took office.
But the Trump-Xi summit came after only three months of Trump in office. The summit was held at Mar-a-Lago-Trump’s private property- which makes it more likely that Trump himself extended the invitation to the Chinese president.
Given that Trump himself seemed to have been keen on meeting with the Chinese president, reinstating the One China policy must have been the essential and inevitable starting point to any US efforts in the regard.
One contentious issue that can be expected to have come up at the Mar-a-Largo is the continuation of US arms sales to Taiwan.
A report by Reuters quoted an unnamed US official at the Trump administration revealing the Trump administration’s plan to prepare a “substantial sale” of weapons to Taiwan. It was also reported that the package will be made public knowledge after the Trump-Xi summit in April.
But the proposal was leaked a weak ahead of Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to China on March 19.
In such circumstances, it is important to consider whether Tillerson was indeed able to successfully avoid addressing the issue of a possible arms sale while in Beijing. To add to that, it seems unlikely that President Xi would agree to have the deal with Taiwan be announced right after the Mar-a-Lago summit and still make future policy plans helping the US-China bilateral relationship during the summit. Certainly, the message that this would send out could be dangerous for China’s position as a rising global power.
The Trump administration must have anticipated a strong push-back from the Chinese and made arrangements to get the Chinese President on board. One of the six assurances disallows the US from consulting with Beijing on arms sales with Taiwan. Given that President Xi did agree to meet with President Trump aware of the US-Taiwan arms sales deal, this begs the question: How important are the Six Assurances now to a Trumpian America?