“A fly before his own eye is bigger than an elephant in the next field.”
As Chinese proverbs go, few are more apt than this in describing the latest gambit in Sino-American relations. Despite early indications to the contrary, President Trump has affirmed the commitment of his administration to the longstanding One-China policy. The People’s Republic of China continues to be regarded as the only sovereign entity over Taiwan. The Taiwanese government must be sorely disappointed.
We ought not to distort the significance of this development. After all, the USA would never have seriously challenged the One-China policy – what could it have to gain? China, ever conscious of the importance of appearances, will continue to deny any substantive form of Taiwanese autonomy. Though one can question the policy chops of the Trump administration, it’s unlikely that they were ever really contemplating abandoning the diplomatic posture wholesale.
It’s been puzzling me, then, why Trump would provoke such a confrontation only to hurriedly rush to restore standard practice. Of course I could adopt the refrain of many commentators, namely that Trump is an inexperienced, ostentatiously unpolished politician; he’s crafting policy on the hoof. At the risk of drawing the ire of this not insignificant grouping – I think there is something more to be said.
In calling into question the foundational conceit of Sino-American relations, that there is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory, Trump is perhaps signalling American willingness to pushback against all facets of Chinese policy. From alleged hacking to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, everything is back on the table. The One-China dispute is but a distraction.
So, there’s no news yet then? Not quite. Whilst the US is demonstrably a significant power, and in Pierre Trudeau’s famous quote the proverbial elephant, greater challenges lie in the next field for China. Not so long ago, China was unrivalled as the workhouse of the world. Now, though China is clearly a manufacturing hub, the ASEAN is a clear challenger. Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines all have low labour costs, few external tariffs with one another, and bountiful natural resources. Economically, China faces opposition.
On top of this, China’s rise to the role of global leader is not assured. It’s hard to see countries like India, with regional ambitions and world-wide reach, accepting China in a position analogous to the US after the Second World War. Furthermore, though it has been forgotten by the journalists breathlessly covering Xingping’s speech at the WEF, China has been accused of notable human rights abuses.
As entertaining as it is to report Trump’s every move, the really interesting Chinese developments lie in the next field.
Written by: Matt Allen