Trump's signals of possible hardline stance on China over Taiwan risk backlash in military, trade issues: Analysts

President-elect Donald Trump looks on during at the DeltaPlex Arena on Dec 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
President-elect Donald Trump looks on during at the DeltaPlex Arena on Dec 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - US President-elect Donald Trump's  continuing signals that he may adopt a hardline stance on China over Taiwan  could backfire and spark  a worse backlash that extends to military and  trade issues.

"Trump is evidently trying to keep China off-balance and thinks this will enable him to gain the upper hand. However, China's sensitivity about Taiwan is such that Trump's approach could backfire and the US could face a full blown military crisis with China,'' Dr Bonnie Glaser told The Straits Times in an e-mail. She is a senior adviser for Asia focusing on Chinese foreign and security policy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

The New York Times quoted Mr Jeffrey A. Bader, a former adviser on Asia to the Obama administration, as saying: "Trump apparently sees it (one-China policy) as part of a broader set of new transactions.''

"Mixing trade with an issue seen by Beijing as involving sovereignty is likely to produce an angry Chinese backlash and worsen both issues," he warned. 

Mr Trump, who won the Nov 8 election on a stridently nationalist platform, is continuing to signal a hardline position in dealing with China, which could see the decades-old US policy discarded.

The 70-year old President-elect, speaking on Fox News on Sunday (Dec 12), said he understood the one-China principle, which states that Taiwan is not an independent nation but part of China. Beijing views the island as a renegade province to be recovered by force if necessary.

 
 
 
 

But he said: "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.

"I mean, look, we're being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don't tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn't be doing; and frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea."

But the one-China policy is a cornerstone of Beijing's foreign policy and abandoning it risks pushing one of China's most sensitive buttons.

One analyst, however, told The Straits Times that trade-offs are normal in international diplomacy.

"He's looking for a deal, a transaction. He wants China to compromise,'' said Ms Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington.

"I think China was surprised that Mr Trump would choose Taiwan as the issue, but they are also aware that if they do not negotiate, given Mr Trump's personality they may face problems.

"China wants to start the relationship on a positive note. China will negotiate, but not at a public level,'' she predicted.