U.S.–China Week: Trump and Taiwan (2016.12.05)

Welcome to issue 80 of U.S.–China Week. I write from the air on the way to Shanghai. This issue is almost exclusively about one of the most explosive reports of a phone call since Alexander Graham Bell rang up Mr. Watson in 1876. The Washington Post has the best just-the-facts/what-we-know explainer I’ve seen so far.

Unrelatedly, if you’re in Tokyo on Dec. 16, I’ll be giving a talk at Temple University Japan. Come say hi.

As always: Please encourage friends and colleagues to subscribe to U.S.–China Week. Here is the web version of this issue, ideal for sharing on social media. You can also find U.S.–China Week on Medium and on Facebook, and you can follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

Trump call with Tsai Ing-wen forecloses possibility of simple status quo start in his relations with China

When President-elect Donald Trump spoke by telephone about economic and defense issues Friday with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, he invited a wide range of questions. Who had initiated the call? (Trump tweeted that Tsai “CALLED ME,” but reports suggest the call had been pre-arranged and it was reported ahead of time.) Did Trump, a foreign policy novice, understand the significance of such a conversation? (As Evan Osnos put it, “It wasn’t clear how much he intended to abruptly alter geopolitics, and how much he was incompetently improvising”; this uncertainty about Trump’s own thinking stands however thoroughly his associates planned the call with Taiwanese officials.) When did the two sides set up the call? (A Taiwanese official told Reuters “Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact,” and the Washington Post reported in an important story that sources said the call was weeks in the making.) Did the call reflect an outstretched hand both offering geopolitical comfort and looking for a good deal for a Trump real estate project in Taoyuan? (Such a theory is unproven and wouldn’t sufficiently explain Tsai’s half of the decision, but it’s an example of how the appearance of conflict of interest is a problem in itself.) Was the call ever supposed to become public? (One report held that Tsai’s team was surprised by Trump’s tweets on the matter, but it seems most likely all sides expected the news to come out.) Just how unprecedented is early outreach to Taiwan by an incoming U.S. president? (Mike Green notes that members of President Ronald Reagan’s team made overtures but that the full government, once assembled, developed a more fully considered policy.) How would China’s government react? (Shannon Tiezzi’s roundup of the initial responses suggests at least temporary caution—perhaps in part because, like the idea that there is “one China,” there is also one U.S. president, and the current one’s NSC spokesman said “said Trump’s conversation does not signal any change to long-standing U.S. policy on cross-strait issues,” according to AP.)

There are plenty more questions, and the Post story gets into some of the individual roles supposedly played by Trump associates. They include Steven Yates, who wrotewith Christian Whiton: “China and the Washington foreign policy establishment thought they could tell President-elect Donald Trump whom he can and cannot speak with on the phone. They thought wrong.” Trump himself, in two tweets, said “Did China ask us if it was OK 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 [not true, say other sources -ed.]) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”

In this context, some things are no longer in question. With this move and the statements since, Trump and those around him have ensured that the U.S.–China relationship will not simply glide forward on the track set by the Obama and Xi governments. While State Department, White House, and other roles relevant to Asia are still to be filled, there is very little to go on in judging who might have influence. As many have noted, John Bolton’s op-ed almost a year ago advocated willingness to use a “diplomatic ladder of escalation that would compel Beijing’s attention. The new U.S. administration could start with receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department; upgrading the status of U.S. representation in Taipei from a private ‘institute’ to an official diplomatic mission; inviting Taiwan’s president to travel officially to America; allowing the most senior U.S. officials to visit Taiwan to transact government business; and ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition.” Chinese officials must now act on the assumption this toolkit is at least under consideration by the Trump team. The Trump team would be wise to study the counterarguments. Former Obama Asia adviser Jeff Bader wrote, “Thumbing our noses at Beijing on its most sensitive national and security issue may feel temporarily satisfying, but provoking it when it has many cards to play makes no strategic sense.” It would be unwise to discount the Chinese government’s resolve, its sense of obligation to demonstrate resolve, and the pressure the Chinese public opinion could potentially exert on the Taiwan issue.

At the same time, while Trump’s fist substantive move toward China was unfriendly, it marks a willingness to break free of some of the most sclerotic patterns of U.S.–China relations. The verbal gymnastics of U.S.–China–Taiwan diplomacy have served the cause of peace and economic development for decades, but they also mask real tensions and force Taiwanese to accept a compromise by greater powers. Trump and Tsai’s conversation snapped some of the tethers that have bound China and the United States politically since Nixon met Mao. This could go very badly if mishandled. It could also potentially end in a new equilibrium in U.S.–China relations that would have to be evaluated on its merits. Favoring the status quo because it kind of works is not itself a virtue; but surrendering a stability-enhancing status quo without a serious plan risks the highest order of disaster. Reading writings by self-identified Trump advisers over the last few weeks leads me to believe many around the president-elect have a vision if not a plan. U.S.–China strategic rivalry is on now, the thinking goes, and the U.S. must prepare to fight for dominance. Despite some people’s unwarranted belief that an isolationist Trump would cede regional hegemony to China, it is important to reflect on the possibility that Trump and his team will take action that pushes bilateral ties in a very dark and dangerous direction. I hope such speculation proves premature, but I don’t believe it is alarmist. The situation before us justifies alarm—not just in China and the United States, but in Taiwan and throughout the world, where economic and security stability would suffer from this order of crisis. For weeks I have preached uncertainty about a Trump-era Asia policy and regional security; with this call, Trump and Tsai took significant action amidst that same uncertainty. Action under conditions of uncertainty carries risk, and this call was risky.


Just a few links on other topics today:

‘U.N. Defeats Move to Seat Red China and Oust Taiwan … Delegates’ Misgivings Over Red Guard Upheaval Is Seen as a Factor’

“UNITED NATIONS, N.Y., Nov. 29[, 1966]—The General Assembly decisively defeated today a resolution that would have substituted Communist China for the Nationalist Government in the United Nations. The vote was 57 against Peking to 46 for. Seventeen members abstained. … The vote was construed as an appreciable gain for the United States policy line. In 1965 the vote on China’s membership was 47 to 47 with 20 abstentions. … The consensus among delegates was that uncertainty about Communist China’s future policies, based on misgivings over the succession to Mao Tse-tung and the activities of the revolutionary Red Guards, had contributed to the increase in votes against admission and for making the issue a question of importance. … Canada abstained from voting on the draft resolution that called for the seating of Communist China and the eviction of the Nationalists. Canada has urged the United Nations to seat the Communists in the Security Council and both the Nationalists and the Communists in the General Assembly.”

(Source: The New York TimesThis entry is part of an ongoing feature of U.S.–China Week that follows U.S.–China relations as they developed in another era of change and uncertainty, 50 years ago.)


U.S.–China Week is a weekly news and analysis brief that covers important developments in U.S.–China relations and features especially insightful or influential new policy analysis.

Graham Webster is a senior research scholar, lecturer, and senior fellow of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, where he specializes in U.S.–China diplomatic, security, and economic relations through research and Track II dialogues. He is also a fellow for China and East Asia with the EastWest Institute. His website is gwbstr.com.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own (and I reserve the right to change my mind).

Subscription to U.S.–China Week by clicking here or e-mailing me is free and open to all, and an archive of past editions appears at my long-running website on East Asia and the United States, Transpacifica.

Contact: Follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Send e-mail to [email protected].






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