Those who supported Trump's conversation with Tsai, the first official call between an American President or President-elect since 1979, have pointed to Beijing's restrained reaction as a sign the move adroitly put China on the defensive, perhaps for the first time. Others have called it a rash and provocative move, possibly one not particularly thought out by the President-elect and his small team.
But the reality is that Taiwan is the one, nonnegotiable red line in US-China relations, meaning it would be foolish to think Beijing will sit by and watch how Trump decides to reform US policy toward Taipei, let alone "normalize" it in international society.
Since the "One China" policy was adopted when Washington recognized Beijing, ambiguously claiming there is but one China, and that Taiwan is part of that China, all three sides have danced gingerly around the issue of Taiwan's de facto autonomy. However, China has never agreed to accept even a hint of actual sovereignty, and has repeatedly asserted its intention to prevent any Taiwanese declaration of independence. It has also not ruled out the use of force
While it is too early to know either how the phone call will affect broader Sino-US relations, or if it is the beginning of a new "Trump Doctrine" for Asia, everyone involved should start thinking about China's likely countermoves. An initially restrained reaction by China was not unexpected, as officials in Beijing may well have known about the phone call beforehand, giving them some time to digest the shock and send out several condescending, yet muted statements.
No one should think, however, that Trump has in one fell swoop wrestled the initiative away from China for the next four years. If anything, Beijing has shown itself willing to challenge the status quo to further its long-term goals. Thus, it likely will respond to Trump's provocation with moves that pressure US interests in Asia. Some of the following actions are possible:
-- Increase the number of ballistic missiles aimed at the island across the Taiwan Strait, so as to remove any doubt that China can militarily defeat Taiwan, if necessary;
-- Cut back on direct mail and air services between the mainland and the island;
-- Continue to militarize its new, man-made island at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea
, located close to the Philippines, including basing fighter jets;
-- Declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea, like the one it established in the East China Sea in late-2013
, forcing civilian and military planes to abide by Chinese rules;
-- Paying off the remaining 22 small states
who have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, to break ties and recognize China;
-- Step up targeted hacks of US government websites, including penetrating into and disrupting military and intelligence networks, to send a message;
-- Renege on support for new sanctions against North Korea, and increase Chinese economic aid (and possibly covert military aid) to Pyongyang
These are just some things China may decide to do in response to Trump's gambit. Come January, without a full national security team in place, President Trump may well face a swift and determined Chinese series of actions designed to make him reconsider his public support for Taiwan.
Yet here, too, is the possibility for miscalculation. Any Chinese attempt to humiliate Trump or the United States could boomerang on Beijing, as no new US president, and especially Trump, wants to be seen by the world as being easy to intimidate. He may well decide in response to go even further, possibly even recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state. That would precipitate a true crisis in Sino-US relations, and force Chinese leaders to decide how much they are willing to risk in preventing a change in Taiwan's status quo.
The ambiguity surrounding Taiwan's international position cannot last forever. Yet while the moral case for supporting Taiwan has never been stronger, a precipitous challenge to the decades-long status quo has enormous risks the farther down the road it goes. America needs to show it can play a long game in Asia, too, and Trump should figure out a way to gradually increase support for Taiwan without causing a reaction that might make such a policy impossible to achieve.