THE idea that China and Taiwan might be separate countries, rather than estranged parts of “one China”, is anathema in Beijing. So on February 9th, when Donald Trump told his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that America would respect the one-China policy after all (having previously questioned this polite fiction), Chinese officials were profoundly relieved. So, oddly, was Taiwan’s government, which thought that questioning the policy had been bad for Taiwan and scrapping it would have been worse.
That is remarkable. After all, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party rejects the one-China policy and says the island is already independent. Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, cannot even bring herself to utter the words “1992 consensus”—the name for a deal between China and the Kuomintang party (KMT), now the island’s opposition, which affirmed the notion of one China but said the two sides had different interpretations of it. So why was her government pleased?
Since coming to office last year, Ms Tsai has presented herself as cautious, responsible and predictable—as different as possible from the previous DPP president, the irrepressible Chen Shui-bian, whose constant efforts to highlight Taiwan’s de facto independence infuriated both China and America. In a speech in October that Ms Tsai hoped would reassure China, she promised she would “of course not revert to the old path of confrontation”.
Mr Trump’s stand-off with Mr Xi could have imperilled that approach. There was an outside chance, debated with paranoia in Taipei, that America’s president might strike a grand bargain with China, selling Taiwan down the river in exchange for big concessions on trade and security. This is highly unlikely, given that America’s defence commitments to the island are enshrined in an act of Congress which could not be undone without legislative approval. Still, there are serious concerns that fall short of that dire possibility. If the stand-off with China turned into a trade war, Taiwan would suffer badly; its economy is inextricably linked to the mainland.
Putting the one-China policy up for negotiation would also have cut across Ms Tsai’s desired timetable for dealing with Mr Xi. Towards the end of the year China’s communist rulers are to hold a party congress—the biggest event of the Chinese political calendar. It seems unlikely that Mr Xi, who is trying to consolidate his authority, would do anything before the congress that might look to rivals like weakness on Taiwan. After the event, however, he might have room for manoeuvre.
Or so Ms Tsai hopes. She and her advisers are considering new ways of describing Taiwan’s relations with the mainland which might replace or add to the 1992 formula. She recently told a group of Taiwanese business people that the time to discuss such a formulation would be in the second half of the year—though, even then, the chance that Mr Xi will show flexibility on the one-China idea seems remote.
At least Ms Tsai will gain some time, which she needs to deal with her priority, the economy. It grew by only 0.7% in 2015 and 1.4% last year. Salaries have stagnated for two decades, youth unemployment is up and Taiwan’s state-run pension funds all face bankruptcy. After months of deliberation, the government is ready to put its pension-reform plan to the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. This will inevitably involve painful choices and probably make Ms Tsai even more unpopular (her poll ratings are dismal).
Mr Trump’s phone call with Mr Xi may help. Her party contains a significant minority of fundamentalists, known as “deep greens”, who want faster strides towards formal independence. They argue that, with Mr Trump in the White House, Taiwan has a historic chance to advance its case for sovereignty. “She hasn’t shown she can seize the opportunity,” grumbled a deep-green politician, Parris Chang, before Mr Trump’s call.
Mr Trump’s change of heart over confronting China seems to weaken the deep-green argument that American politics has become exceptionally friendly to their position. This does not mean they will stop criticising Ms Tsai. They are unhappy about her economic management, the presence in her government of officials from past KMT administrations and her unwillingness to invite to Taiwan some of China’s foremost bugbears, such as the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer, the head of the World Uighur Congress (who this week turned down a private invitation to visit the island). But Mr Trump’s volte-face reduces the pressure they can exert on Ms Tsai to change course on China.