Trump, Taiwan, and China: a “Storm on the Horizon”

When President-elect Trump spoke by phone to , referring to her as “the president of Taiwan,” he broke decades of protocol in the carefully scripted and crafted trilateral relationship between the U.S., Taiwan, and China. The immediate responses to the call were swift and varied, with many assuming the call–the highest public contact since the U.S. canceled diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China in 1979–was the outcome of Trump’s political and diplomatic naiveté. Yet Trump’s advisors have since told the media that the call was long planned as part of a strategic move to realign the U.S.-China relationship, vis-à-vis Taiwan. Anne Gearan reports for The Washington Post:

The historic communication — the first between leaders of the United States and Taiwan since 1979 — was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the Republican presidential nominee, according to people involved in or briefed on the talks.

The call also reflects the views of hard-line advisers urging Trump to take a tough opening line with China, said others familiar with the months of discussion about Taiwan and China.

Trump and his advisers have sought to publicly portray the call the president-elect took from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen ­on Friday as a routine congratulatory call. Trump noted on Twitter that she placed the call.

[…] Tsai will have sympathetic ears in the White House. Priebus is reported to have visited Taiwan with a Republican delegation in 2011 and in October 2015, meeting Tsai before she was elected president. Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lee called him a friend of Taiwan and said his appointment as Trump’s chief of staff was “good news” for the island, according to local news media.

Nevertheless, some observers remained skeptical about the intention and timing of the call:

In The Atlantic, Isaac Stone Fish agrees that the call indicated that Taiwan will likely become a focal point in diplomatic relations with China, a move which some groups in Washington and elsewhere would welcome after feeling that the island gets short shrift in U.S. foreign policy:

It’s possible that with Trump in the White House, Taiwan will play an even larger role in U.S. . “Taiwan is about to become a more prominent feature of the overall U.S.-China relationship,” former U.S. ambassador to China and potential Trump secretary of state Jon Huntsman predicted in an interview with The New York Times on Saturday. Randy Schriver, a former deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs who now runs the Project 2049 Institute, a pro-Taiwanese think tank, is cautiously optimistic. “There has been a subtle struggle behind the scenes” to make Taiwan an issue in its own right, and not just “an issue within U.S.-China issues,” Schriver said. The U.S. government, he added, should not “always have to ask ‘Mother May I,’” to Beijing in regards to Taiwan. [Source]

In typical fashion, Trump expressed his anger with the current status quo with China in a series of tweets after news broke about his phone call with Tsai. Jane Perlez reports for The New York Times:

A front-page editorial in the overseas edition of People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party of China, denounced Mr. Trump for speaking Friday with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, warning that “creating troubles for the China-U.S. relationship is creating troubles for the U.S. itself.” The rebuke was much tougher than the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s initial response to the phone call, which broke with decades of American diplomatic practice.

For his part, Mr. Trump seemed to take umbrage at the idea that he needed China’s approval to speak with Ms. Tsai. In two posts on Twitter, he wrote: “Did China ask us if it was O.K. to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”

[…] By going after China’s policies on trade and security, Mr. Trump appeared to be confirming his intent to take a tougher line with the Chinese leadership across a broader range of issues — and further dampened hopes in Beijing that he might step back from the campaign rhetoric he has used, including threats of punishing trade tariffs.

[…] That could put President Xi Jinping in a difficult position, forced to choose between playing down Mr. Trump’s attacks and risking a backlash at home, or raising the stakes by pushing back more forcefully and setting China on a potential collision course with the United States, its most important trading partner. [Source]

Meanwhile, President Obama’s administration tried to quell Chinese concerns over the impact of Trump’s call and whether it in fact signified a change in longstanding U.S. policy, as Ben Blanchard and Roberta Rampton report for Reuters:

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said senior National Security Council officials spoke twice with Chinese officials over the weekend to reassure them of Washington’s commitment to the “One China” policy and to “reiterate and clarify the continued commitment of the United States to our longstanding China policy.”

The policy has been in place for 40 years and is focused on promoting and preserving peace and stability in the strait separating China and Taiwan, which is in U.S. interests, Earnest said.

“If the president-elect’s team has a different aim, I’ll leave it to them to describe,” he said. [Source]

While the phone call to Tsai may have been a deliberately provocative move planned by Trump’s advisors to signal a shift in attitudes toward China, it is still unclear what role if any Trump played in the planning. At the New Yorker, Evan Osnos writes that, with the call, Trump “may have been manipulated into doing something he doesn’t understand”:

When news broke of Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, foreign-policy experts were, unsurprisingly, appalled. Since his election, Trump has conducted a series of phone calls with foreign leaders, without seeking expertise from those at the State Department and the National Security Council who monitor the details of those relationships. On Wednesday, he told Pakistan’s President that he would do whatever he could to help him—despite America’s strong interest in preventing Pakistan from doing many things it would like to do in India and Afghanistan. To use an analogy that Trump would recognize, it’s akin to arriving for a negotiation without first asking the value of the assets, the cost of the transaction, or the previous terms of engagement.

[…] Whether it says it or not, China will regard this as a deeply destabilizing event not because the call materially changes U.S. support for Taiwan—it does not—but because it reveals the incoming Presidency to be volatile and unpredictable. In that sense, the Taiwan call is the latest indicator that Trump the President will be largely indistinguishable from Trump the candidate.

Trump has also shown himself to be highly exploitable on subjects that he does not grasp. He is surrounding himself with ideologically committed advisers who will seek to use those opportunities when they can. We should expect similar moments of exploitation to come on issues that Trump will regard as esoteric, such as the Middle East, health care, immigration, and entitlements. [Source]

The initial official Chinese response to the call was relatively restrained; Global Times issued an editorial blaming it on Trump’s ignorance. But several scholars in China have expressed concern that Trump’s actions would spur greater conflict between the U.S. and China, Tom Phillips reports for The Guardian:

“It is still too early to make any assured predictions but I think maybe I can see that a cloudy storm is gathering on the horizon,” Shi [Yinhong, a Renmin University foreign policy expert] said. “This is not good, of course.”

Referring to the billionaire’s latest social media salvo against Beijing, Shi said: “These words should again remind the Chinese media and a large part of Chinese international scholars and even maybe many officials within the Chinese government that their previous estimates of Trump’s disposition and his China policy are too optimistic.” [Source]

Some observers believe that it is too early for Beijing to take any retaliatory move, Mimi Lau and Teddy Ng report for the South China Morning Post. In another SCMP article by Liu Zhen and Wendy Wu, scholars expressed further concern over the future of U.S.-China relations:

While it’s understandable that Trump is trying to deliver a message that, whatever he does, he doesn’t need to inform China or care about what Beijing likes, he is neglecting the possible ramifications of his actions and words on Sino-US relations, analysts said.

[…] Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said Trump’s tweets reflected his bellicose personality and intolerance of criticism from the Democrats, the White House and China, even though the Chinese government has been largely restrained since he was elected.

“Trump is still not yet in office yet, so the Chinese government can’t react too much to him, but China can take certain action against Taiwan,” Jin said. [Source]

Journalist John Pomfret, who recently published a new book about the history of U.S.-China relations, believes that Taiwan could become the victim not only of Trump’s recklessness but also of the excitable media response. He writes in The New York Times:

Together, Trump’s shenanigans and the hyperventilation by the media could end up adding more unwarranted pressure on democratic Taiwan and could contribute to the continued narrowing of its international space.

This is a shame because Taiwan has come a long way from its days as the unsinkable aircraft carrier against Maoist-style communism. It’s now a full-fledged democracy, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, the only woman who is not part of a political dynasty to ever be elected as the leader of an Asian nation. Her victory this year marked the third peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other in Taiwan, a sign of the maturity of Taiwan’s political system, its robust civil society and raucously independent media.

[…] I worry that Trump’s call and the media reaction could complicate these warming ties by encouraging China to punish Taiwan, which could then touch off a cascading series of moves and counter-moves leading to more tension in Asia and, in the end, more problems for the people of Taiwan, China and the United States. Nobody really wants to replay 1996, when the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft-carrier battle groups near Taiwan to put China on notice that a series of mock invasions and missile tests were out of line. I also worry that the new administration, seeking a breakthrough in North Korea, is reopening the Taiwan issue only to get Beijing’s attention and will drop the Taiwan bargaining chip once China gets the message. [Source]

Mark Landler and Jane Perlez write in The New York Times that Trump’s confrontational style could force Xi Jinping to negotiate the response of nationalistic Chinese, who vehemently oppose any discussion of Taiwan as an independent country.

The trouble, said some, is that Mr. Trump needlessly antagonized China by trumpeting the phone call and then following it up with a series of defiant tweets. “It’s not the phone call that’s the problem; it’s the making it public that’s the problem,” said Shelley Rigger, a professor of political science at Davidson College who specializes in Taiwan.

That could put President Xi Jinping in a difficult position, forced to choose between playing down Mr. Trump’s attacks and risking a backlash at home, or raising the stakes by pushing back more forcefully and setting China on a potential collision course with the United States.

The Chinese government’s initial reaction to Mr. Trump’s call has already drawn a torrent of criticism on social media from Chinese who complained that it was not tough enough. The statement from the foreign minister, Wang Yi, which was relatively low key, given the unprecedented nature of the call, refrained from criticizing Mr. Trump, instead accusing Taiwan of playing a “little trick” on the president-elect.

That offered Mr. Trump a face-saving way out of the imbroglio, and a chance to de-escalate. But the messages he posted on Twitter late Sunday stepped up the pressure on China’s leaders instead. [Source]

As James Palmer writes for Foreign Policy, the carefully constructed protocol concerning Taiwan serves many purposes, including the ability to hold nationalistic Chinese at bay when the topic comes up in the international arena:

The fussy diplomatic protocols Trump flouted, in this case, are not a mere formality. They are a finely honed coping strategy for Chinese emotions that are very raw and potentially explosive. Although the Chinese reaction has been surprisingly — perhaps hopefully — muted, there is no more sincerely sensitive issue in China, among politicians and the public, than Taiwan.

[…] And there’s the real problem. This isn’t just a set of political restrictions imposed by a paranoid party — one that has always been obsessed with controlling and contorting language. It’s bone deep in mainland Chinese, a conviction drummed into them by childhood and constantly reasserted. Plenty of elements of party propaganda are inconsequential to most Chinese or even mocked. Taiwan isn’t one of them.

I have lived in China for 13 years, and in that time I have talked with perhaps three mainlanders who thought that Taiwan had the right to determine its own future. Everyone else with whom I’ve discussed the issue, from ardent liberals to hardcore Marxists to the politically apathetic, has been fervently against the idea that Taiwan could ever be considered a country. It’s an idea as weird, taboo, and offensive to the majority of Chinese as proposing the restitution of slavery would be to Americans — not for its moral value but for going against everything they hold dear about their country.

In Taiwan, meanwhile, many people are celebrating the phone call as a long-overdue acknowledgement of their existence, while others fear potential repercussions. From Chris Horton at The New York Times:

“I think that for the majority of Taiwanese people, this is the happiest thing that’s happened to us since 1978, before the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations,” Hsieh Jin-ho, a publisher and commentator, said in a phone interview.

[…] Mr. Hsieh added that in general, Taiwanese had two different takeaways from the call.

“One conclusion is that Taiwan needs to seize this opportunity in order to upgrade to fuller relations with the U.S. and expand its international friendly relations,” he said. “Another group of people fear that China’s continually increasing pressure will grow even larger” and threaten Taiwan’s future. [Source]

For a discussion on the value of redefining the U.S. relationship with China, see a recent ChinaFile discussion, “Should Washington Recalibrate Relations with Taipei?”

At The Atlantic, David Graham explains why a phone call with Taiwan is such a big deal. And at Quartz, Isabella Steger writes about, “The unbearable sadness of being Taiwan, a liberal island other democracies refuse to talk to.”