The inauguration of President Donald J. Trump on January 20, 2017 suggests that U.S. foreign policy is moving away from the Wilsonian liberal internationalism, which has guided American foreign policymaking since the end of World War II, toward the “America-first” Jacksonian populism. The Jacksonian foreign policy perspective stresses defending and protecting American national interest as the top priority. It essentially promotes a more mercantilist commercial relationship with America’s trading partners, disentanglement from far-flung overseas alliances and international institutions, and a greater reliance on the realpolitik grand strategy than democratic promotion or nation-building abroad to strengthen U.S. security.
The Jacksonians, however, are not isolationists, but they do believe that Washington should only intervene and engage overseas when that would benefit American interests, not for some highly moralistic mission to transform the world. America’s democratic experience is unique and exceptional; therefore, it may not be relevant or applicable to other nations. Trump posited, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.” This transformation in U.S. foreign policy perspective inevitably may lead to wide ranging alterations in American foreign policy interests, including Washington’s decades-old “One China” policy.
Following Sino-American normalization in the 1970s, U.S. administrations from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, had embraced a well-calibrated liberal engagement approach to deepen cooperative diplomatic and socioeconomic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while still deterring Beijing from taking up aggressive and unruly behaviors. The U.S. has sought to encourage China to assume greater responsibility and a more constructive role in the international arena. As the PRC becomes more deeply integrated into the liberal world order, its political and economic systems, the logic goes, will also become more pluralistic, law-based, and inclusive. Until very recently, these normative commitments have also underpinned America’s longstanding “One China” policy, predicated on the three Sino-American Joint Communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act, and President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances, governing the relations between mainland China and Taiwan since America recognized Beijing and broke ties with Taipei in 1979. While defending Taiwan’s security, democracy, and autonomy, the U.S. has refrained from challenging Beijing’s quest for China’s national unity and territorial integrity, to which unification with Taiwan is an unyielding objective for the Chinese Communist Party. America’s concern has been that a more explicit commitment to Taiwan could destabilize Sino-American relations and even empower the nationalistic/hawkish elements within the Beijing leadership, which, in turn, would be counterproductive to the goal of liberalizing and democratizing China. Thus, America’s respect or “acknowledgement” of the PRC’s sovereign claim over Taiwan, as noted in the Shanghai Communique of 1972, coupled with Washington’s unobtrusive support of the island, has meant to maintain the delicate peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Former president Obama noted this rationale, asserting that “for China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of one China is at the heart of their conception as a nation.”
Nevertheless, Trump, in an unprecedented move, received a phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, on December 3, 2016, raising Beijing’s hackles. Moreover, he challenged the logic of adhering to the “One China” policy when the PRC declines to cooperate fully with America on curbing North Korea’s nuclear program and desist constructing and militarizing islands in the South China Sea. While making these remarks before officially assuming office, the new president has provided important and clear signals to the leaders of Beijing that America’s longstanding “One China” policy can be “negotiable.” If one of the original motives undergirding the U.S. “One China” policy was to liberalize mainland China, it certainly hasn’t been very successful, especially on the democratization front. In addition, as the PRC becomes stronger and more assertive, its interests have frequently clashed with those of the United States. Thus, the new Trump administration’s “One China” policy will be driven more by the cold-hearted realist national-interest calculations than the liberal cosmopolitanism of previous presidents.
Both Beijing and Taipei have good reasons to feel apprehensive. Unfettered by Wilsonian values, the Trump presidency will likely upgrade relations with Taipei militarily, economically, and politically (i.e., even some advocated resuming diplomatic relations with Taiwan). It will be less sensitive to Beijing’s enduring national sovereignty position. But, there are fears that Taiwan may be championed by President Trump more as strategic leverage than a liberal democracy in its own right to counterbalance the PRC. For Beijing, it has taken Washington’s liberal engagement for granted, believing that the United States has a soft spot for China and, therefore, Taiwan would never be used to contradict Chinese interests. That reassurance is now withheld by Trump’s bluntness.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration may still not renege on the “One China” policy. On the basis of “America first” consideration, maintaining “One China” may simply be a wise decision given that a stable U.S.-China relationship as well as peaceful cross-strait relations remain important for America. For instance, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the soon-to-be secretary of state Rex Tillerson said that he “doesn’t know of any plans to alter the One-China policy.” However, fiery patriotism is also at the core of Jacksonian vision, which means that America will show less tolerance for those going against its interests. Hence, if U.S.-Chinese relations become more intense and adversarial over various strategic and economic differences, the Trump administration may choose to break away from “One China” (or, at least, to elevate Washington’s support for Taiwan) to hurt Beijing even though Washington will be harmed too by any drastic deterioration of Sino-American relationship. Neither America nor China, not to mention the world, will benefit from such zero-sum confrontations. Some observers have argued that the Xi Jinping government may use Washington’s hostility as a convenient justification to rally domestic political support and, therefore, further consolidating power in the face of foreign threats. But, China would ultimately also pay a heavy price, as acrimonious Sino-American relations would be detrimental to its ongoing economic development, desire for harmonious socio-political order, and a stable international environment.
Jacksonianism may be a relic of 19th century American nationalism and protectionism, and it may not serve U.S. interests well in the 21st century. Yet, its resurgence certainly puts the “One China” policy, as with other U.S. foreign policy issues, in great volatility. Leaders in Beijing and Taipei must not dismiss this sea-change in American foreign policy framework.