U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appears at a campaign roundtable event in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., October 28, 2016. To match Special Report COLLEGE-SAT/COLEMAN REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo
© Reuters

China has warned Donald Trump that the two countries will have “nothing to discuss” if his incoming administration discards the four-decade-old “One China” policy.

“Adherence to the One China policy is the political bedrock for development of [bilateral] relations,” Geng Shuang, a foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday. “If compromised, there will be nothing to discuss on co-operation in major fields.”

Mr Geng was responding to comments that the president-elect made on Sunday in which he questioned whether his administration would continue to respect the One China policy and shun official contacts with Taiwan over which Beijing claims sovereignty.

Mr Trump’s remarks dramatically raised the stakes with China just a week after he broke diplomatic precedent by accepting a phone call from Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ying-wen.

Both incidents have sorely tested the Chinese government’s patience. “We urge the new [US] leadership to recognise the sensitivity of the Taiwan question and to deal with it in a prudent manner,” Mr Geng said. “Upholding the One China policy was America’s promise and we want them to fulfil this promise.”

Earlier on Monday, a stinging editorial in the Global Times, an offshoot of the official People’s Daily, urged Mr Trump to “listen clearly, the One China policy cannot be traded”.

“China needs to wage resolute struggle against [Mr Trump],” it added, warning the president-elect that China “cannot be bullied easily”.

Last week, the Chinese government lodged an official protest over the call with Ms Tsai but was otherwise restrained, urging the incoming administration to respect principles that have guided Sino-US relations since diplomatic ties were formally re-established in 1979.

On Sunday, Mr Trump said he fully understood the One China policy, but was unconvinced by the logic. “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,” he told Fox News.

China experts in the US remain unsure whether Mr Trump really intends to end the One China policy, or whether he is simply using the threat as a bargaining chip. It is also unclear whether Mr Trump was fully aware of the implications. While some Trump aides have claimed that Mr Trump had been considering the issue for weeks, the president-elect said he only found out about the call hours in advance.

Dennis Wilder, a China expert who served in the CIA and was the top Asia adviser to George W Bush, said that China would be watching to see whether Mr Trump was serious or whether he had been unwittingly pushed into a corner by his pro-Taiwan advisers. He said that Beijing would be hoping that Mr Trump really had not been aware of the call.

“That will say to them that the whole idea that Trump plotted this all out is clearly not true,” said Mr Wilder. “That actually leaves open questions about what is really happening here. Is it Trump or has Trump been led into this cul-de-sac by advisers.”

Mr Wilder added that China had many ways to retaliate, against both Taiwan and Washington, if Mr Trump did decide to abandon the decades-old diplomatic formula.

Beijing has for decades required countries wishing to establish formal diplomatic relations to acknowledge that there is only one China and cut off official ties with Taiwan.

Taiwan has in effect been independent since the Kuomintang party, which ruled China until 1949, fled there after losing to the Communists in China’s civil war. Both sides had since abided by the so-called “1992 consensus” in which they agreed that there was only one China but disagreed on who was the country’s rightful representative. Beijing has since accused Ms Tsai, who led the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party to victory in last year’s presidential election, of violating that consensus.

“The fundamental assumption in Sino-US bilateral relations has always been that there can be tensions, there can be friction, but no one makes a sudden move,” said Yanmei Xie at Gavekal Dragonomics, a Beijing consultancy. “Right now that paradigm is in doubt.”

The Global Times warned of severe consequences if the incoming US administration dispensed with the One China policy. In that case, the paper asked, “why should the Chinese government prioritise ‘peaceful reunification’ [with Taiwan] over ‘reunification by force’?”

Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said “Trump’s position is you can trade anything”, adding that the One China policy was often ambiguous. “We keep open trade ties with Taiwan even though we don’t recognise them and even though the US sells arms to them.”

According to Mr Trump, “other things” could include currency policy, Beijing’s military build-up in the South China Sea and improved co-operation in containing North Korea.

“Look, we’re being hurt very badly by China with [currency] devaluation, with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them, and building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea,” Mr Trump said. “And frankly, they’re not helping us at all with North Korea.”

China’s currency, the renminbi, strengthened by 30 per cent against the dollar in the decade to 2014, but has since lost about 15 per cent of its value against the greenback.

The International Monetary Fund and most analysts believe the renminbi’s value is largely market-driven, although China’s central bank regularly intervenes to prevent the currency from falling even further against the dollar.

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang and Charles Clover in Beijing, Gloria Cheung in Hong Kong and David Lynch in Washington

Get alerts on Chinese politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article