Why a Cold War With China Will Be Risky For Trump
There is little about the fragrant sizzle of oysters, or sheets of kelp drying by agave-fringed shores, that hints at a Cold War frontier. But on Xiaodeng, a rocky island off China’s bustling southern port city of Xiamen, seafood and subterfuge go hand in hand. Measuring less than a square mile, it is the closest inhabited part of the People’s Republic to Taiwan, whose island of Kinmen looms through the fog. Over the decades, the periodic exchange of rockets between the two foes has forced people on both sides to retreat into deep defensive tunnels hewn from the solid rock. During times of peace, a propaganda battle has often taken over.
“Taiwan used to send biscuits and even old watches over by balloon,” says a Xiaodeng resident surnamed Hong, 76, beneath an awning in her courtyard. ”But we were told they were poisoned and so never touched them.”
China and Taiwan split after Mao Zedong’s Communists forced the routed Nationalists across the Strait in 1949 at the end of China’s civil war, setting off decades of bristling rancor between the Soviet-backed victor and its American-propped foil. Beijing still considers Taiwan a renegade province to be reunited by force if necessary.
China’s State Council designated Xiaodeng and two neighboring islands—Da Deng and Jiao Yu—a “Hero’s Triangle” in 1958, owing to their frontline positions. Less than two miles separate Xiaodeng from Kinmen. That’s considerably less than the 90 miles from Cuba to Key West, and even narrower than the 2.5-mile Korean DMZ. The peoples of Taiwan and Fujian province, to which Xiaodeng belongs, may have been politically estranged for over half a century, but they share a culture, a cuisine and the Hokkien group of dialects.
In recent years, the political gap has slightly narrowed. In 1992, Beijing signed a consensus with the Kuomintang government then governing Taiwan., stating that there was “One China.” Even if the two sides disagreed over what its sovereign power should be, the consensus that there was an indivisible China was enough to send hourly ferries, packed with selfie-snapping tourists, between Kinmen and Xiamen—the island port city of which Xiaodeng is administratively a part. The consensus also prompted the launch of direct flights between various Chinese cities and Taipei.
But those warming relations have been directly challenged by new U.S. President Donald Trump. In stump speeches through the American heartland, he accused China, with its export-driven economy, of stealing American jobs. He vowed to label Beijing a currency manipulator and to impose 45% tariffs on Chinese imports. But, even worse from Beijing’s point of view, he accepted, while President-elect, a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. A U.S. leader had not had direct contact with his Taiwanese counterpart since Washington recognized the People’s Republic in 1979. In talking to Tsai, Trump broke with four decades of diplomatic protocol and challenged what Beijing deemed its “core interests.”