China issued its strongest condemnation yet of President-elect Donald Trump on Monday, after he hinted his administration might toss aside four decades of U.S. policy recognizing Taiwan as part of China.
The country’s Foreign Ministry warned that any damage to that principle could rupture diplomatic ties. State media called him “as ignorant as a child,” and Chinese social media users upbraided the future leader’s comments.
Geng Shuang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, expressed “serious concern” and said that any change to this established policy could render cooperation between Washington and Beijing “out of the question.”
“We urge the U.S. leader and government to fully understand the seriousness of the Taiwan issue,” he said.
In just over a month, Trump’s comments have cast uncertainty over the future of U.S.-Sino relations. His recent tweets accuse China of manipulating its currency, unfairly taxing American imports, and stoking tensions in the South China Sea. Trump’s latest remarks, made Sunday on Fox News, came just a week after he broke with long-standing precedent and accepted a call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen.
Trump’s brinkmanship with China comes at a time when the country has been growing increasingly assertive under President Xi Jinping.
“There is nothing more dangerous than two thin-skinned bullies slugging each other,’’ said Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “I understand Trump’s gut feeling that China shouldn’t set the terms of the game when it comes to Taiwan. It is a natural human sentiment, but it is not good foreign policy. Trump is so unmodulated. He reacts viscerally in a way that can be very dangerous and destructive.’’
“I understand the one China policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a one China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” Trump said in the Fox News interview.
The “one China policy” dates to 1972, when then-President Richard Nixon met with Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung and enshrined the United States’ acknowledgment that Taiwan was part of China. The Communist Party’s defeated rivals, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to the island in the 1940s and established their own anti-Communist government. Although Nixon’s agreement was something of a diplomatic sleight of hand since the United States would subsequently sell arms to Taiwan, it was enough for China and the United States to set aside their differences and build a relationship that now accounts for $600 billion in annual trade.
The fragile status quo has also allowed tourism and trade between Taiwan and the mainland to flourish, with Taiwanese companies like Foxconn making iPhones in China, and some 3.4 million mainlanders visiting Taiwan last year.
“The one China policy is an agreement to disagree,’’ said John Pomfret, author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom,” a newly released book on the history of U.S.-Chinese relations. “By throwing it under the bus, Trump is taking away the weak ballast that is holding the relationship together.’’
Last week, China flew a nuclear-armed bomber over a disputed boundary in the South China Sea. Analysts believed it was a display of displeasure over Trump’s phone call with Tsai – a call that marked the first direct contact between a current or incoming American president since 1979, when the U.S. broke off formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.
China watchers anticipate possible retaliatory action from Beijing. China conducted a series of missile tests in the Taiwan Strait in 1995 in reaction to a U.S. decision to grant a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to speak at Cornell University.
Beijing could also punish U.S. companies doing business inside China and withdraw its cooperation on international matters, such as relations with North Korea and Iran. But whatever measures Beijing takes are likely to harm Taiwan more than the United States, analysts said. “China’s tool kit for bedeviling America is limited. Where they do have leverage is over Taiwanese companies, by continuing to squeeze the international space for Taiwan, cutting tourism to Taiwan and scaring the hell out of the island with saber-rattling and war games,’’ Pomfret said.
Carly Fiorina, a businesswoman who was one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, visited the president-elect Monday and told reporters afterward that they spent “a fair amount of time talking about China as probably our most important adversary and a rising adversary.’’
Beijing shrugged off Trump’s anti-China remarks during the campaign as the usual political rhetoric, but grew alarmed when Trump broke precedent and took Tsai’s telephone call.
Some viewed Trump’s move as a political gaffe; others saw it as a definitive statement.
Trump told Fox News he knew about the Tsai call “an hour or two” in advance and that it would have appeared disrespectful not to take it. “Why should some other nation be able to say I can’t take a call?”
Beijing at first lodged a formal protest about the conversation, but played down its significance.
That tone has started to change.
“It’s generally interpreted here that Trump wants to negotiate the basic agreements that touch upon China’s most sensitive core interests,” said Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “The natural reaction is China will stand tough and signal strongly to Trump there is no room for renegotiation.”
The state-run New China News Agency, in a Monday commentary, noted U.S. presidents have realized, “sooner or later, the one-China policy allows no bargaining, and a deviation from the established policy pattern towards China leads to unwanted consequences.”
In a less subtle editorial, the nationalistic Global Times urged China to launch a “resolute struggle” with Trump and denounced him for treating diplomatic issues like trade deals. “Only after he’s hit some obstacles and truly understands that China and the rest of the world are not to be bullied will he gain some perception,” it said.
Comments on Chinese social media were even fiercer. “He’s obviously a business man with no final line, only exchange of interests,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
“He’s nothing compared with Obama.”
Special correspondent Meyers reported from Beijing and Times staff writer Demick reported from New York. Yingzhi Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
5:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional context about the one China policy.
1:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with analyst remarks.
This article was originally posted at 7:20 a.m.