Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
Despite the uproar in the United States over president-elect Donald Trump's precedent-shattering Dec. 2 phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, the Chinese government was restrained. But Mr. Trump's questioning of the need for the "one China" policy clearly exceeded China's tolerance, even from someone who is still a private citizen.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was "seriously concerned" by Mr. Trump's latest remarks and called on the incoming administration "to be fully aware of the high sensitivity of the Taiwan question … so as to avoid any serious disruption and harm to the overall interests of the China-U.S. relationship."
A foreign ministry spokesman explained that the "one China principle" was the political foundation of China-U.S. relations and if this foundation was compromised, "the sound and steady development of the bilateral relationship is out of the question."
A commentator in Global Times, a nationalistic newspaper, pointed out that the president-elect is "a novice at dealing with diplomatic and international relations issues."
The paper itself adopted a tough editorial line, saying that if Mr. Trump abandoned the one-China policy and supported Taiwan independence, "Beijing could offer support, even military assistance, to U.S. foes." Moreover, it said, China now can control the risks in the Taiwan Strait much better and, "if Trump wants to play tough, China will not fail."
Comments in the paper ranged from those who suggested China not overreact to Mr. Trump's inexperience to others who saw his remarks as an excuse for China to abandon its policy of peaceful unification with Taiwan and to "solve the problem of Taiwan immediately and militarily." Thus, Mr. Trump's attempt to improve the U.S. trade position could lead to war. Taiwan could be seriously endangered.
One scholar, Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University, suggested that Chinese countermeasures could include "economic sanctions and military action" by China.
China has in the past blackmailed the U.S. by threatening to withhold co-operation on global issues, such as Iran, North Korea or climate change, if it didn't get its way.
Such thinking is still prevalent. Shen Dingli of Fudan University responded to the initial Tsai-Trump phone call by urging a sharp downgrading in relations with the U.S.
"I would close our embassy in Washington and withdraw our diplomats," he said. "I don't know how you are then going to expect China to co-operate on Iran and North Korea and climate change. You are going to ask Taiwan for that?"
But the difference between before and now is that Mr. Trump doesn't care about some of those issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal or climate change, limiting China's leverage.
Those who hope that Mr. Trump can learn about international affairs may be in for a long wait. The president-elect has just announced that he doesn't need daily intelligence briefings because he's "a smart person."
Mr. Trump's nomination of Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, to be secretary of state means that the nation's chief diplomat, like Trump himself, will have no diplomatic experience.
Mr. Trump last week provided China with reason to cheer by nominating Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad as his ambassador to China. The Governor first met Xi Jinping, China's current president, more than 30 years ago when the young Chinese official visited Iowa on an agricultural mission and Mr. Brandstad was serving his first term. The two men had been in touch intermittently since then.
The appointment was warmly received in Beijing, with the foreign ministry hailing Mr. Brandstad as an "old friend of the Chinese people." The U.S. ambassador, the spokesman said, "serves as an important bridge" linking the two governments and China welcomed "his greater contribution to the development of China-US relations."
But Beijing made clear it wasn't beholden to Mr. Trump, by saying it would work with anyone designated as the American ambassador.
In the weeks before the inauguration, there will be other words and actions by the president-elect that will provoke China's ire. But China will wait and see what the Trump administration's actual policies are before announcing any actions, such as a change in its own policy on Taiwan.
Still, China is supremely capable of interpreting facts to fit its own interests. Thus, in the eight years of the Ma Ying-jeou administration before he was succeeded in May by Tsai Ing-wen, China never criticized Taiwan for buying American weapons. Instead, on each occasion, it castigated the U.S. for selling these weapons, even though Taiwan had requested them in the first place.
But, where the phone call was concerned, China's initial decision was to blame Ms. Tsai and let Mr. Trump off the hook. But such forbearance is unlikely to continue.