2016-12-06 By Danny Lam
President Elect Trump’s 10 minute phone call with President Tsai of Taiwan was a watershed event that marked the great divide between the Kissinger-Nixon era of foreign policy toward China and the Trump era.
At the beginning of the Kissinger-Nixon era, the US was faced with a heavily armed Soviet Union allied with a nuclear armed PRC with what appeared to be unlimited manpower.
Detaching the PRC from the Soviet orbit fundamentally altered Soviet calculations and accelerated their decline was a prize.
Today, the problem is reversed.
The US and allies are faced with a heavily armed, well financed Communist Chinese regime and a weak, non-communist Russia with little to fall back on except nuclear weapons.
Normalization of relations with the PRC was accomplished through the issuance of three communiques in 1972, 1979, and 1982 that defined the relationship. In those documents, the PRC and US explicitly acknowledged their differences. “There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies.” (para 8, 1972) and made clear that the differences are only papered over temporarily for the sake of peace.
Temporarily is the operative word.
Detaching PRC from China required more than just diplomacy.
Michael Pillsbury, beginning 1975, initiated relationships with the PRC’s military and intelligence establishment that ultimately resulted in the transfer and sale of torpedoes, helicopters, and fighter upgrades that impressed the PLA of the superiority of the US. During the Sino-Vietnam war, the Carter Administration authorized the transfer of artillery locating radar to the PLA bogged down by determined Vietnamese resistance.
This strengthened Deng Xiaoping’s hand and enabled him to carry out the “opening” reforms that also saw his rivals in the PLA eliminated that enabled the Deng reforms.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union that steadily progressed from 1987, it appeared that it is a matter of time before the tide reached Beijing given the rampant inflation and mismanagement of the economy.
All these efforts came to an abrupt halt as a result of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The PLA playing a highly visible role in suppressing the uprising resulted in the downgrading of these nascent ties and an arms embargo imposed on PRC by the US and allies that lasted to this day.
As a result of this, it turned the Beijing regime’s military inwards and increasingly hostile to the US.
What was missed by Western analysts and “China Experts” that focused intensely on Beijing is that Tiananmen was not a uniform problem throughout China. Most of the relatively prosperous southern coastal Chinese provinces did not play more than a token part in the opposition to Beijing.
The economic and social forces that resulted in university students in Beijing being mobilized in opposition to the regime were either not present or weak in these areas. Likewise, there was little sign of the kind of unrest in the periphery of the Eastern Bloc that presaged the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The southern coastal provinces were doing quite well in the post-Deng “opening” and content to pay off Beijing to leave them alone.
The way it was always done.
It is fair to say that the US and Allies enacted a post-Tiananmen policy that was flawed from the start by uncritically and gullibly assuming that what they saw in Beijing represented all of China.
The consequence of being misled by events and dynamics in Beijing was dramatic. The formal ties to the PRC regime were strained by Tiananmen, but the commercial ties to the southern provinces continued to prosper uninterrupted. WTO accession negotiations continued and PRC won accession in November, 2001.
Within two decades, southern China became the economic dynamo that made it possible for the Beijing regime to command the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, preside over a dynamic economy second only to the US, and more importantly, fund one of the largest, fastest, and sweeping arms buildup in history.
Western “China Experts”, however, continue to hang onto the Beijing centric view of China in interpretation of the motives, intention, interests and behavior of different parts of China.
This divergence is clearly visible during the past week with the THAAD and Trump-Tsai call issue.
The Beijing based regime and the PLA/N’s Northern and Central Theater commands behavior toward the South Korean and Japanese THAAD behavior is suggestive that this cluster has a Nuclear First Strike Policy and Posture aimed at US and Allied military bases in the Northeast Asian region.
This is evident in their willingness to undertake highly provocative and threatening moves like simultaneously testing 10 DF-21 ballistic missiles prior to the Trump-Tsai call.
On the other hand, PRC’s Taiwan policy has traditionally been driven by the Shanghai clique, who was initially muted and then slow to respond to the Trump-Tsai call.
When the Beijing Regime did respond over the weekend, it was almost perfunctory with obligatory denunciations in People’s Daily and Global Times, but nothing concrete.
This is consistent with the Shanghai clique being far more invested in access to the world market and exposed to trade and economic sanctions being proposed by President Elect Trump.
The disconnect is shown by no mention or concern by the PRC Foreign Ministry with the highly provocative and threatening move last week and an explicit threat to US forces published in Xinhua that stated: “The missiles “can destroy U.S. Asia-Pacific bases at any time” while officially protesting the Trump-Tsai call.
Nor discussion of the campaign against South Korean economic interests.
Aggregating PRC regime behavior into “China” cannot explain these differences in observed behavior within the space of one week on two issues that are so closely and tightly tied to national security and longstanding norms: The US adherence to the “One China” policy being breached, and the PRC explicitly demonstrating a credible nuclear first strike capability at US installations.
“China Experts” had to deal with cognitive dissonance that perhaps, it is not a coherent policy coming out of Beijing after all.
The Priesthood of Western “China Experts” who are quick to denounce President Elect Trump’s call to President Tsai and, accused him of “not very well prepared”, ignorant, incompetence, rash, apparently failed to recognize that the move was long planned, intentionally provocative, and indicative of a substantial change in China policy — largely frozen since Kissinger-Nixon.
The fact that not a single western “China Expert” that publicly critiqued President Elect Trump’s call with President Tsai even mentioned the PRC’s ballistic missile test as provocation and threats to US the same week raises serious questions as to whom they owe their allegiance to? Beijing or America?
The alternative explanation that western “China Experts” were ignorant about the provocation shown on Chinese television and issued in a Xinhua statement, is even more damming.
The Trump Administration began the task of understanding China as a vast civilization of many ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, languages, economic, social and political divisions whose differences are no less dramatic than Europe, or Eurasia or Africa or the Indian subcontinent.
The “provocation” this week exposed Beijing, the master franchisor of the PRC brand, and their collaborators for what they really are.
This is a great beginning to forging a new set of foreign policies toward the Chinese civilization.
By tangibly and visibly supporting longtime allies like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan as Beijing ramps up their campaign against them can provide a solid way forward.