Speaking on Friday at what is likely to be his last White House news conference Obama urged his successor to beware of provoking a “very significant” response from Beijing over Taiwan.
The past two weeks have seen Trump take a series of public swipes at China, accusing Beijing of manipulating its currency, building “a massive fortress” in the South China Sea and not doing enough to pressure Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.
Most controversially of all, the billionaire has also hinted he might upend nearly four decades of US-China ties by offering greater recognition to the government of Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing views as a breakaway province.
Trump’s questioning of the so-called “One China” principle move drew protests from Beijing and led one state-run newspaper to call for swift preparations for a military invasion of the democratically governed island.
On Friday, Obama said Trump needed to grasp “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 and so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what are the consequences.”
“Because the Chinese will not treat that the way they will treat some other issues. They won’t even treat it the way they treat issues around the South China Sea, where we have had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of how they see themselves and their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant.”
Obama said the importance of US-China collaboration in areas such as the global economy, security and international affairs was now such that “there is probably no bilateral relationship that carries more significance”.
“And where there is also the potential – if that relationship breaks down or goes into a full conflict mode – that everybody is worse off,” the outgoing president added.
Foreign policy specialists on both sides of the Pacific have expressed concern at the potential for upheaval if Trump’s early forays into China policy continue after he takes office on 20 January.
“I think the Chinese are quite concerned,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington.
“Publicly, they have been rather restrained but they know that they have a little bit over four weeks before this guy gets sworn in and I think they believe they need to educate him on what China’s core interests are and the risks of actually threatening them.”
Glaser said Chinese diplomats were now “scrambling to try to figure out who is going to be in key positions [and] whether they are going to have any ‘friendlies’” in the Trump administration.
“The Chinese are smart enough to know that if they are very tough, in a rhetorically retaliatory way, against Trump then that will probably just make him angry. It’s not the way to deal with Trump. You don’t criticise him publicly, not personally. So I think [at the moment] they are trying to find ways to educate him and influence him and his team without creating a downwards spiral in the relationship.”
Orville Schell, the head of the Centre on US-China Relations at New York’s Asia Society, said that by threatening to defy Beijing over Taiwan Trump had “bearded the dragon”.
“He has probed the most sensitive nerve in US-China relations – the territorial integrity of the motherland and the idea of the inevitable return of Taiwan to the motherland’s embrace.”
“I am intrigued with Trump’s ability to disequilibrate what was something of a standoff [between the US and China],” Schell added.
“[Obama’s] virtue was to try to be consistent, steadfast and not to react too much from the gut and too emotionally. And here you have an incoming president who is exactly the opposite in each of those categories.”
Author: Tom Phillips