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The Diplomatic Disaster of Trump’s Relations with China

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By Amy Callaghan

The relationship between the US and China is one of the most significant relationships of the 21st century. China’s role as an international power and its place as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council means that it is a vital and powerful ally to the US internationally.

US concerns about the rising power of China in East Asia, and Chinese concerns about the tendency of the US to interfere and impede on affairs which China considered purely domestic, have been the main reason for tensions between the two countries in the past.

Since the end of the Cold War, a delicate diplomacy has emerged between China and the US, hinging on a core set of values and established rules of interaction between the two. Both countries are incredibly reliant on each other both from an international diplomacy point of view as well as in terms of economics and trade, and this is why the election of Donald Trump as president of the US has caused such concerns over the future of the US-Chinese relationship.

One of the most crucial aspects of the relationship is adherence to the ‘One China’ policy. Put into simple terms, the ‘One China’ policy means that the US only recognises the People’s Republic of China, governed in Beijing, rather than the Republic of China, governed from Taipei in Taiwan.

In the past, issues between the US and China which have nearly led to open conflict have centred on perceived breaking of this principle – for example, the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis nearly resulted in use of military force by the US and China against each other. This crisis was caused by a state visit from the newly elected president of Taiwan to the US, which appeared to China to be a direct threat to the One-China principle. From this perspective, then, it is clear why then president-elect Trump’s phone call to the president of Taiwan in December 2016 caused tensions between the US and China, with experts from the White House rushing to assure the Chinese government in Beijing that the US intended to adhere to the One-China policy.

Evan Medeiros, the Asia director at the White House national security council, told the Financial Times: “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action of historic proportions. Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.”

Diplomatic blunders such as these are why the presidency of Donald Trump could throw established international relationships into chaos.

Domestically, of course, Trump’s presidency has been anything but peaceful and stable – he has demonstrated a distinct lack of understanding of the judicial system among other things, as well as enacting essentially unconstitutional policies such as the Muslim ban. However, it will be these international diplomatic blunders which cause Trump – and the US as a whole – the greatest issues in maintaining their status as a power with unrivalled global influence. In recent days, Trump has committed to maintaining the One-China policy in a phone call to Xi Jinping, the president of China, yet the fear and uncertainty about Trump’s intentions caused by his initial blunder and stance on the issue is now a part of the Chinese perspective on the US for the foreseeable future.

It is unclear, as with so many issues arising from Trump’s presidency, how this situation will play out over the next four years. Maintaining a stable and cooperative relationship with China was one of the priorities of the Obama administration, as its importance as an ally of the US was given the value and significance it deserved.

However, with his customary tough talk and his ambitions to ‘Make America Great Again’, Trump could completely throw off the balance of the international stage, and nothing is a clearer indicator of this than his interactions with China up to this point. Threatening the stability of America’s relationship with China would have disastrous repercussions globally, from an economic perspective as well as a threat to keeping the peace between the two countries.

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