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Examining What The U.S. Relationship With China Will Look Like In 2017


When Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, makes a swing through Latin America next month, she will stop off in San Francisco and also Houston. Now, anything that looks like support for an independent Taiwan angers China. And China this morning again called for the U.S. to deny the necessary visas for that stopover. This is another irritant in the U.S.-China relationship which may be headed for change under soon-to-be-President Donald Trump. Let's look at the U.S.-China relationship in 2017 with Robert Daly, who's here in the studio with us. He heads the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Center.

Welcome back to the program. Good morning.

ROBERT DALY: Good to be here. Thanks.

GREENE: So let's - let's think about this. Last month, Donald Trump takes this congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan. Now, the Obama administration gives her a transit visa. What exactly is going on here?

DALY: The transit visa, actually, was set up before the phone call, so this was expected.


DALY: As you mentioned, we know that this annoys China, but the Trump administration has made it clear that it is annoyed by China's repeated annoyance and that, in its view, it is up to the president or president-elect of the United States who they speak to and to whom they give visas, that China's objections are, to use a Chinese phrase, a gross interference in our internal affairs.

GREENE: That's formal speak in China.

DALY: That's formal speak in China.

GREENE: That's what they use.

DALY: So there will be transits and there are precedents for this, but it appears that there will not be formal meetings, that they will not elevate the visit in ways that would further anger China. It's going to be played down. There is a sense that the Trump - incoming Trump administration has made its point with the phone call. And tune in after January 20.

GREENE: You say - so you say annoyances and then annoyed by annoyances. I mean, it sounds like sort of just a tit for tat, but this can be serious stuff, right? I mean, these are seen as provocations in China that could really build.

DALY: This is - this is very serious stuff because when we established relations with China in 1979, we established as the basis - the foundation for all relations - what is called the One China policy. We have accepted that there is only one China. We acknowledge that people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits have a different view of that but that they also acknowledge one China. So every incoming president - though Reagan's case is a little bit fuzzy - but every incoming American president has reaffirmed the One China principle before taking office to establish our continued interest in relations with China. So this is not a bargaining chip. This is the foundation upon which all bargaining takes place. Talking to Tsai Ing-wen one doesn't necessarily violate, as we discussed last time, the policy - the One China policy - but it's a shift in practice that China's deeply worried about.

GREENE: It makes China nervous.

DALY: Yeah.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about what China has been doing. I mean, the South China Sea, which we've heard about a lot in 2016 - another core interest of China. They've been fortifying these islands. This week, for the first time, they sent an aircraft carrier into the region. Are those significant moves in the views of the United States and its allies?

DALY: Certainly. A decision of the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague earlier in the summer made clear that China's - what's called its Nine-Dash Line - its essentially claim over all of the South China Sea, all of the western Pacific - has no basis in international law and that these islands China has built out do not, under the UN Convention on The Law of the Sea, have the status of islands. They are mere rocks that don't grant China a - China a territorial stake. But China is behaving as if they do, so this is a challenge to international law, which the United States has had a major role in upholding since World War II. So yes, these are seen as provocative moves.

GREENE: Robert Daly, wasn't this seen as the peaceful, prosperous, stable region in an otherwise pretty difficult, tense world? What - why can't - why wouldn't it be in everyone's interest to just say, let's - let's keep it that way?

DALY: Well, everyone does say that they want to keep it that way. And, yes, it's been extremely peaceful and prosperous. Sixty percent of the world's population is in Asia. Two-thirds of the world's growth is in Asia. And this is one of the reasons that we have very strong interests there. What has changed primarily is China has risen. China has become more wealthy. And like all big continental powers that get wealthy, it has also grown its military, and it wants to shape its environment to suit its needs.

GREENE: But that's been going on for a while, right? I mean, is there something new today that that might be worrying a new president like Donald Trump when he comes in?

DALY: It has escalated under the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The island-building has escalated. It had been pursued initially under his successor. China likes to say, well, Vietnam has built out islands. The Philippines, other countries have built out islands. That really doesn't wash with the United States or China's neighbors because China's building of islands over the past three years is 17-times greater in total area than all of the other claimants combined over 40 years. This is huge. Everything with China is enormous. And as China's recent seizure of an American drone makes clear, China's attitude appears to be that it will call the shots in this vast, vitally important area, which does not serve America's interests. It doesn't allow us to uphold our alliance relations with Japan and South Korea. And it also flies in the face of international law.

GREENE: OK, speaking with Robert Daly of the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington.

Thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

DALY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.