Donald Trump's decision to break protocol and become the first president-elect in decades to speak by phone with a Taiwanese president was either a colossal blunder or a shrewd strategic coup, depending on which Beltway insider you ask. At the least, Trump's divisive exchange with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has sparked a substantive debate about the nature of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations and the sanctity of Beijing's version of the "One-China" policy, which codifies China's inalienable sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet.
Yet, as Washington braces for potential blowback from Beijing, both critics and supporters of the Trump-Tsai exchange have overlooked one key fact. In an era when global powers are shunning both Taiwanese and Tibetan leaders (like the Dalai Lama) under the weight of Chinese pressure, one country has been openly challenging Beijing's One-China policy for more than six years: India.
Like many of China's neighbors, in the late 2000s India was still adjusting to the more assertive and nationalistic brand of Chinese foreign policy that emerged in 2008, when Beijing's leaders interpreted the global financial crisis as symbolic of a great power shift from a declining West to an ascendant China. Bilateral ties were repeatedly tested by friction over Chinese incursions into India across their disputed border, Beijing's efforts to block U.N. sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorists, and visits by the Indian prime minister and the Dalai Lama to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, most of which is claimed by China as "South Tibet," among others.
One Chinese provocation cut deeper than the rest. In 2010, Beijing denied a visa to Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal on account of his posting as the head of India's military command in Kashmir, the long-disputed territory claimed by China's "all-weather friend" Pakistan. China had been employing consular chicanery with India for years — stapling separate, unique visas to Indian residents of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as an informal challenge to Indian sovereignty there — but the denial of a visa to Jaswal struck a nerve.
New Delhi's reaction was uncharacteristically swift and punitive, suspending all forms of bilateral military ties and joint exercises. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited New Delhi in December 2010, for the first time India refused to acknowledge the One-China policy in a joint statement with China. Beijing, New Delhi signaled, would have to recognize Indian sovereignty over Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh if it wanted India's consent on the One-China policy. "The ball is in their court. There is no doubt about that," explained Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao at the time.
Joint statements in the years to follow continued to omit the One-China policy, a position adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he assumed office in 2014. "For India to agree on a one-China policy, China should reaffirm a one-India policy," External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj declared before Chinese President Xi Jinping's first trip to New Delhi in September 2014. "When they raised the issue of Tibet and Taiwan with us, we shared their sensitivities.... They should understand and appreciate our sensitivities regarding Arunachal Pradesh."
China relented on the visa question two years after Wen's visit, and military ties were restored shortly thereafter. More important, six years after India's change of heart on One-China policy, it has suffered no discernable political or economic backlash that can be tied to the policy shift.
To be sure, India's denial of the One-China policy is less emotionally and politically contentious for China than any shift in American posture toward Taiwan. In the context of China-India relations, the One-China policy mostly relates to Tibet and, to a lesser extent, their long-standing border dispute, in which more than 30,000 square miles of Indian territory is still claimed by Beijing.
In 1947, the Republic of India inherited from the British Raj an unsettled border with China and a series of special trading privileges with Tibet, including the right to station escort troops at specified trading posts. Ever since China "peacefully liberated" Tibet in 1950, it has been critical of Indian intentions on the plateau and sensitive to Indian interference there. That anxiety was amplified after the Dalai Lama fled a Chinese crackdown in 1959 and sought refuge in India, later establishing a Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala. After China and India fought a monthlong war across their disputed border in 1962, Chinese leaders argued that the "center of the Sino-Indian conflict" was not the border dispute but a "conflict of interests in Tibet."
It's notable, then, that beyond its broad refusal to endorse the One-China policy, New Delhi has given no indication that it plans to walk back its repeated reaffirmations of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet (much less Taiwan). On the other hand, Prime Minister Modi has adopted several initiatives short of that threshold to signal a more defiant posture on Tibet and the border dispute. Early in his tenure, for instance, Modi fast-tracked military and civilian infrastructure upgrades along the disputed Sino-Indian border, where Beijing has enjoyed a large and widening advantage.
More recently, New Delhi granted the Dalai Lama permission to visit Arunachal Pradesh in early 2017, a move that has drawn Chinese ire in the past. Perhaps most surprising, this past October New Delhi granted U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma access to the sensitive, Chinese-claimed town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, another first. And just last week Indian President Pranab Mukherjee hosted the Dalai Lama at India's Presidential Palace, blithely dismissing Beijing's protesting diplomatic note. In a rare move, it even offered to help Mongolia weather trade sanctions recently imposed by Beijing as punishment for Mongolia's hosting of the Dalai Lama in November. None of this has resulted in any direct punitive response from Beijing.
It's not just Tibet, either. Since the visa denial incident in 2010, India has witnessed a marked acceleration in its outreach to Taiwan, including hosting several Taiwanese government ministers in 2011; signing new agreements on double taxation avoidance, cultural cooperation, and mutual degree recognition; permitting a former Taiwanese president and vice president transit layovers in 2012 and 2014, respectively; and inviting a former Taiwanese official to address two high-profile international conferences this year. These moves have yet to draw any sharp response from the mainland.
What does India's approach to the One-China policy tell us about the Trump-Tsai phone call? Namely, that questioning the sanctity of the One-China policy is not necessarily a "death sentence" with Beijing, especially when the challenges are indirect and inexplicit. To date, China's muted response to the phone call supports that assessment.
To Beijing's mandarins, Modi represents an unfamiliar commodity: a confident, assertive, nationalist Indian leader with a surplus of political capital. The same is even truer for Trump, who, for China, remains shrouded in a cloak of uncertainty and unpredictability. China's leadership isn't nearly as confident that it can predict Trump's response to each move on the regional chessboard, compared with Barack Obama's more calculable style, and is naturally inclined to proceed cautiously. After years of testing the "red lines" of its neighbors and Washington as well, Beijing is not nearly as comfortable being on the receiving end.
If the Trump-Tsai exchange was part of a nuanced, calibrated strategy designed to diminish China's near-monopoly on strategic ambiguity and the initiative it seized during the Obama administration, it could eventually produce a more balanced trilateral relationship between the United States, China, and Taiwan.
If, on the other hand, the Trump-Tsai exchange precedes a more indiscriminately vindictive posture toward China using Taiwan as a pressure point, Trump's team should be prepared for a wide range of potentially volatile, dangerous, and unpredictable Chinese responses.
As a party to more than a dozen meetings in Beijing and Washington with China's current Taiwan affairs minister, Zhang Zhijun, and to numerous exchanges on Taiwan with some of China's senior-most diplomats, I find it difficult to overstate the intensity and seriousness Beijing devotes to Taiwan and its status. It is far more sensitive to changes in America's posture on One-China policy than India, partly because China has never felt particularly threatened by Indian power, and partly because its leadership has more directly linked its legitimacy to the reunification of Taiwan than to any issue related to Tibet.
That doesn't mean Washington should compromise its values under threat of Chinese coercion: I believe the U.S. president should reserve the right to speak to whomever he likes and at the time of his choosing, whether that's Taiwan's president or the Dalai Lama.
Trump and his team appear to have reclaimed that right and, thus far, to have moved the needle on Taiwan without destabilizing ties with China. But for this to be remembered as a shrewd strategic coup, they will have to walk a fine line in creating a new balance in trilateral relations not only more favorable to U.S. and Taiwanese interests but stable enough to prevent an unnecessary war with China in the Western Pacific.