It’s unclear how many Americans fully understand the meaning of the U.S. (and many other countries’) “one China policy” and the history behind it, but Donald Trump’s recent phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese president who won this year’s elections in part on an interpretation of “one China” that included greater autonomy for Taiwan, has introduced an unnecessary complication into the commencement of Trump’s presidency. Whether it was a flub or a manifestation of a long-simmering and substantial minority voice within the GOP elite (the latter seems more likely in light of post-call events and discoveries), China and the U.S. are interdependent in a number of ways that could ultimately hurt specific constituencies in the U.S.
One of those, of particular interest to the readers of this blog, is the U.S. university. China sends approximately 300,000 students to study in the U.S., many of them paying higher effective tuition (that is, not receiving scholarships or tuition discounts to attract them) than U.S. students, who are shrinking in number (by 2022, public high school graduates are projected to increase 1 percent while private high school graduates will decline by 29 percent). The U.S. is certainly not the only destination open to Chinese students: last year, there were more Chinese students studying in the UK than from all EU countries combined (pre-Brexit) and a majority of Chinese students who study abroad express a desire to study in Canada. Chinese student visa approvals are notoriously capricious, although it seems clear enough that central authorities could use a number of levers, including outright denial of applications for study at U.S. universities, in partial retaliation for diplomatic moves it dislikes.
Of course, the financial well-being of a few U.S. universities should not alone guide U.S. policy toward China, and the relationship is sufficiently complex that a U.S. response toward an equally valuable sector might deter Chinese action on student study the U.S. Yet within Taiwan itself, the question of the ROC’s identity is multifaceted, and in the global community even more so (Taiwan is a member of the WTO but not the U.N.). So it’s a curious move by Trump and his advisers early in the administration, and we’ll have to wait and see what the impacts might be on U.S. universities to say nothing of the broader bilateral relationship.