Official anxiety over the recent election of Donald J. Trump as U.S. president appeared to mount in China last week when the president-elect flouted decades of diplomatic tradition by speaking to Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen on a phone call, referring to her as the “president of Taiwan” in a follow-up tweet. While some immediately speculated that Trump’s move was a symptom of the businessman and reality television star’s political naïveté, his advisors told the media that his conduct was part of a strategic plan to renegotiate the U.S.-China relationship by shifting focus to the small de facto independent state that Beijing regards as an inalienable part of China. This week, news broke that the call was actually the result of months of lobbying between Trump staffers and Taiwanese officials, led by former Republican senator Bob Dole. The New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Eric Lipton report:
Mr. Dole, a lobbyist with the Washington law firm Alston & Bird, coordinated with Mr. Trump’s campaign and the transition team to set up a series of meetings between Mr. Trump’s advisers and officials in Taiwan, according to disclosure documents filed last week with the Justice Department. Mr. Dole also assisted in successful efforts by Taiwan to include language favorable to it in the Republican Party platform, according to the documents.
[…] “They’re very optimistic,” Mr. Dole said of the Taiwanese in an interview on Tuesday. “They see a new president, a Republican, and they’d like to develop a closer relationship.”
[…] The disclosure documents were submitted before the call took place and made no mention of it. But Mr. Dole, 93, a former Senate majority leader from Kansas, said he had worked with transition officials to facilitate the conversation.
“It’s fair to say that we had some influence,” he said. “When you represent a client and they make requests, you’re supposed to respond.” [Source]
More from the disclosure documents, as well as analysis of whose interests Dole was working on behalf of and an explanation of Taiwan’s ongoing efforts to reach out to conservative U.S. politicians, from Politico’s Isaac Arnsdorf:
Taiwan paid the 93-year-old Dole and his law firm, Alston & Bird, $140,000 between May and October, according to the new disclosure. His spokeswoman declined to comment.
[…] “It does seem very strange that Trump is ignoring the State Department while apparently allowing Bob Dole, a lobbyist for Taiwan, to make arrangements for him in what appears to be a change in U.S. policy dealing with Taiwan,” said Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of watchdog group Democracy 21. “Dole’s interests here certainly involved Taiwan’s interests more than it did American interests, and the fact that he was the intermediary raises a serious issue about just how President-elect Trump is going to make U.S. foreign policy.”
Dole’s work is part of Taiwan’s decades-long investment in grooming conservatives to bolster its U.S. relations at China’s expense, dispatching lobbyists to ply Capitol Hill, feting congressional staff with trips to Taipei, throwing parties at a vast D.C. estate, and funneling money to China hawks at right-leaning think tanks.
[…] The filing also reveals Dole’s hand in making the Republican platform the most pro-Taiwan it has ever been. The 2016 edition added language affirming the “Six Assurances” that President Ronald Reagan made to Taiwan’s security in 1982. [Source]
While many op-eds following the call saw it as a potentially dangerous upset of a carefully balanced global order, three Taiwanese student leaders of the 2014 Sunflower Movement suggested that the outrage expressed by the U.S media and liberal citizens was hypocritical. From The Washington Post:
Like many Americans who stand for progressive ideals, few young Taiwanese see someone like Donald Trump as a decent leader. However, the anxious reaction of the American media and foreign policy establishment to the Dec. 2 phone call between Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and President-elect Trump is also at odds with American values of human rights, freedom and democracy.
Sharing these values, we are puzzled why many commentators have treated Trump’s move as an “affront” to authoritarian China rather than consider the possibility of normalizing relations with a democratic nation of 23 million people, many of whom share deep affinities with the United States. When it comes to human rights in Tibet, freedom of speech in Hong Kong or maintaining strong relations with Japan or the Philippines, U.S. pundits rarely skirt controversy for fear of “provoking” China. Why should the rhetoric change when it comes to Taiwan — a vibrant young democracy led by a female head of state which boasts universal health care and is poised to become the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage?
Taiwan’s current diplomatic isolation is a legacy of the Cold War. When the Carter administration cut official ties with Taiwan in 1979, the island was still under the rule of an exiled authoritarian regime which claimed itself as the legitimate representative of all of China. Taiwan’s uneven support from American conservatives, who saw Taiwan as a front line against communist China, is partly a result of this history. However, times have changed. Taiwan has democratized and its people are articulating new aspirations which deserve acknowledgment from Americans across the political spectrum. […] [Source]
Predictably, the staunchly nationalistic state-owned tabloid Global Times editorialized at length on the tradition-shattering phone call. The most recent Global Times editorial touching on the subject argues for Beijing to reciprocate against the U.S.’ massive military budget. AFP describes the op-ed, which appeared in both the Chinese and English editions. It notes that despite the potential diplomatic calming that Trump’s pick of an “old friend of the Chinese people” as ambassador to China may have achieved, other state-run publications are still pessimistic on Sino-U.S. relations under the president-elect.
China should “build more strategic nuclear arms and accelerate the deployment of the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile” to protect its interests, should Trump attempt to corner the country in an “unacceptable way”, it said.
“China’s military spending in 2017 should be augmented significantly,” it added in the editorial that appeared in both its English and Chinese editions.
In the editorial, the Global Times said: “We need to get better prepared militarily regarding the Taiwan question to ensure that those who advocate Taiwan’s independence will be punished, and take precautions in case of US provocations in the South China Sea.”
[…] On Wednesday, Trump selected Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who has close ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping dating back to the mid-1980s, as ambassador to China – potentially welcome news for Beijing, which called him an “old friend” upon receiving reports of his nomination.
Nevertheless, the state-owned English-language China Daily newspaper remained pessimistic about the future of relations with the US. [Source]
An earlier op-ed from Global Times struck out at a Trump tweet-storm lambasting China for its trade policies and behavior in the South China Sea, and the American political establishment for their reaction to his cordial conversation with Tsai. As is the case with many Global Times op-eds, the essay ran in both Chinese and English. Also as is customary, there was a subtle toning-down of the English version. CDT Chinese editors compared the final paragraphs from the op-ed, highlighting omissions in the English version. In the below translation of the Chinese version, bold text shows what wasn’t made available for English readers:
No matter what Trump thinks, China must be determined to upset his unreasonable requests at his early time in office, and fight back if his moves harm China’s interests, regardless of the consequences to the dynamics of the Sino-US relationship. What Trump likes most is the manufacturing of conflict, amid which he wins both the limelight and benefits to his interests. If China behaves soft-heartedly for the greater good of the bilateral ties, it will only embolden Trump to be more aggressive.
No matter who is in the White House, the strategic confrontation between the U.S. and China is obviously getting worse, which is inconsistent with the interests of American society as a whole. So it is safe to say, Trump’s China-bashing tweet is just a cover for his real intent, which is to treat China as a fat lamb and cut a piece of meat off it. Trump wants to revive US economy, but he knows that the Americans have already become lazy, that his country is not as competitive as it used to be. He is trying to pillage other countries for the prosperity of the U.S.
Trump seems to be wanting to make the US a new economic empire in the 21st century under his leadership, which is about to smash the current world economic order‘s “Great Mongol Khan, whatever you want you can obtain. His thinking is too simple. He doesn’t know that the U.S. is the biggest beneficiary in the current world order, and feeling that the U.S. got too little he wants to reshape the world order into a winner-takes-all one.
China should brace itself for possible fluctuations in the Sino-U.S. relationship after Trump is sworn in next January 20. We must confront Trump’s provocations head-on, and make sure he won’t take advantage of China at the beginning of his tenure, setting the stage for China to deal with the future strategies of the new master of the White House. Only after victory in this initial battle will there be a foundation for further China-U.S. negotiations. With anti-Trump voices sounding loudly in the U.S., Chinese society must meet this conflict with much greater unity than his side. We can sustain through any difficulty, but he may not be able to. [Chinese]
See also a Foreign Policy op-ed from former Global Times English edition editor James Palmer, who explains the depth of Chinese public opinion on the status of Taiwan, and argues that the Taiwan “issue needs to be handled carefully, respectfully, and with a certain allegiance to diplomatic fictions.”