Speaking before reporters only hours after the phone call between President-elect Donald Trump and President Tsai Ing-wen, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅)—who previously served as director of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) from 2008 to 2013—blamed the Tsai government for orchestrating the 10-minute exchange between the two leaders: “This is just the Taiwan side engaging in a petty action [小動作 ], and cannot change the ‘one China’ structure already formed by the international community.” Acknowledging that the phone call did little to change US policy, the Foreign Minister concluded: “I believe that it won’t change the longstanding ‘one China’ policy of the United States government.”
On December 3, a day after the Foreign Minister Wang’s statement, Beijing lodged a formal diplomatic protest and “solemn representation” with Washington that reiterated the importance of the “One-China” policy, urging the United States to, “cautiously, properly handle Taiwan issue to avoid unnecessary disturbance to Sino-US relations.” The People’s Daily—the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece—was less diplomatic and printed a front-page commentary admonishing readers that: “Trump and his transition team ought to recognize that creating trouble for China-US relations is just creating trouble for the US itself.” The Party outlet criticized the president-elect for portraying the phone call as, “not a big deal” and warned about allowing such “petty tricks” to go unanswered. China Daily, an English publication directed by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department (中共中央宣傳部), took a calmer tone, saying there was no need to “over-interpret” the phone call, which it called a sign of President-elect Trump’s team’s “inexperience” and “lack of proper understanding” of Sino-US and cross-Strait relations.
The calibrated responses from the PRC are better understood in the context of Beijing’s longstanding efforts to shape and define the US “One-China” policy through political warfare. The objective is to align US “One-China” policy more closely with Beijing’s “One-China” principle. Towards that end, Beijing utilizes diplomatic, economic, and military tools of statecraft to influence Washington, and also Taipei, from taking policy positions that Beijing sees as detracting from its “One-China” principle. An example of this false equivalency is found in the TAO’s response to the phone call, which stated: “We [China] have firm will, full confidence and sufficient ability to curb any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ and will continue to advance the progress of national reunification.” In this case, Beijing appears to be attempting to characterize the phone call as a “trick” by Taiwanese leaders to get Washington to recognize Taiwan independence. Yet, any reasonable inference would never suggest that accepting a phone call could be considered an indicator of such a radical political signal. In this raw political environment still reeling from a divisive presidential election, however, there seems to be more receptivity to Beijing’s interpretation of the US “One-China” policy.
In a probable sign of escalation, on December 10, Chinese military aircraft took off at 9:00 am from the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command for an exercise around Taiwan. At least four aircraft were involved in a long-range military exercise that covered Taiwan’s eastern shore, flew around Taiwan’s southern airspace spanning the Bashi Channel off the southern tip of Taiwan in the Luzon Strait, and paired up with advanced fighter aircraft from the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command. Although similar training exercises were held back in September, the latest sortie follows quickly on the heels of another exercise that took place November 25, just a week before the Trump-Tsai call, that involved six aircraft, including two H-6K long-range bombers. The Japanese Self Defense Force revealed that the six aircraft that entered Japanese airspace included two Sukhoi SU-30MK2, two H-6 bombers, one TU-154MD electronic intelligence aircraft, and one Y8 maritime patrol aircraft. The flight path reportedly spanned the strategic airspace along the Miyako Strait, which lies south of the Japanese island of Okinawa.
According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense, the December 10 exercise was a deliberate act. While Beijing’s motive to intimidate Taiwan’s leaders seems plausible given past practices, why and how it expects to achieve its objectives are less clear. The PRC has a history of trying to use military tactics to achieve political results. An obvious demonstration can be found in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996, in which Beijing fired three sets of missiles over the Taiwan Strait in an effort to intimidate and coerce voters within Taiwan in the lead up to the country’s first direct presidential election. However, the tests had the opposite intended effect of rallying Taiwan’s electorate behind Lee Teng-hui; and, in the greatest show of force since the Vietnam War, the United States deployed two carrier strike groups towards the Taiwan Strait.
What further actions Beijing will take to retaliate for the Trump-Tsai call remains to be seen, but it appears from the statements and tangential actions taken thus far that the PRC’s response will likely be directed against Taiwan. Beginning even before her inauguration in May, Beijing has been trying to pin the cooling down of cross-Strait relations on the incoming Tsai administration. If Beijing continues to escalate its pressure tactics on Taiwan in light of the call with President-elect Trump, it will probably elicit more support for President Tsai since the phone call enjoys overwhelming support within Taiwan. If the PRC tries to further punish Taiwan through coercive means, it will expose that their objective is to not only discredit Tsai Ing-wen or the ruling DPP, but further alienate the people of Taiwan. Beijing seems to have forgotten its lesson from 1996.
The main point: The calibrated responses from the PRC should be understood in the context of Beijing’s longstanding efforts to shape and define the US “One-China” policy. In this raw political environment, still reeling from a divisive presidential election, there seems to be more receptivity to Beijing’s interpretation of the US “One-China” policy.