Two questions. One: Who initiated the call? And two: Did he understand the significance of what he was doing when it happened?
Not sure about the answer to the first question. I’ve got a guess about the second.
Donald Trump risks opening up a major diplomatic dispute with China before he has even been inaugurated after speaking on the phone on Friday with Tsai Ying-wen, the president of Taiwan.
The telephone call, confirmed by three people, is believed to be the first between a US president-elect and a leader of Taiwan since diplomatic relations between the two were cut in 1979…
“The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” said Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House national security council.
“Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.”
Trump’s spokesman also confirmed that the call happened. The U.S. maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan but hasn’t conducted official diplomacy since the end of Carter’s administration, as a concession to maintaining good relations with China. Not even Reagan or the “cowboy” Dubya risked antagonizing the Chinese by breaking with that protocol of “ambiguity.” Trump speaking to Tsai will be taken as a signal, intended or not, that the U.S. disputes Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. “So what?” some Trumpers will say. Trump’s been bashing China for years; he’s openly threatened a trade war with them many times. They already know he’s antagonistic. Right — on trade. But a challenge to their sphere of infuence is next-order stuff. Will China, hearing this, be more inclined to make a move on Taiwan down the road? And if they do, is President Trump going to send in the Marines to try to hold them off? If you’re going to pick fights with China, pick your spots carefully. Also, why would Trump want to alienate the Chinese right out of the box when he knows already from his discussions with Obama that North Korea’s nuclear development is soon going to pose a very big problem for the United States? China is the only diplomatic lever the world has to (sort of) control Kim Jong-un. They’re not going to care as much about minimizing a threat to the U.S. if the U.S. is threatening their claim to Taiwan.
Even more weirdly, Trump got elected by running as the closest thing to a mind-your-own-business candidate on foreign policy among the GOP’s field of interventionists. He’s the NATO skeptic, the guy who questions why the United States bears more responsibility for limiting other major powers’ spheres of influence than countries in the region who are most threatened by expansion of that influence. Now here he is knocking on China’s door by chatting with Taiwan. What?
Back to that second question, though. Does Trump even understand that the goodwill calls he’s fielding from world leaders have nuances like this? Before you answer, read this report on his recent chat with Pakistan’s prime minister.
In a remarkably candid readout of the phone call, the Pakistani government said Mr. Trump had told Mr. Sharif that he was “a terrific guy” who made him feel as though “I’m talking to a person I have known for long.” He described Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.” When Mr. Sharif invited him to visit Pakistan, the president-elect replied that he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.”…
The breezy tone of the readout left diplomats in Washington slack-jawed, with some initially assuming it was a parody. In particular, they zeroed in on Mr. Trump’s offer to Mr. Sharif “to play any role you want me to play to address and find solutions to the country’s problems.”
That was interpreted by some in India as an offer by the United States to mediate Pakistan’s border dispute with India in Kashmir, something that the Pakistanis have long sought and that India has long resisted.
So the bad guys in China are on edge now … but so are the good guys in India, apparently because Trump hasn’t learned the rules of diplomatic politesse yet and probably isn’t being briefed by the State Department before each call. If he has a thought-out strategy to change U.S. policy towards Taiwan, that’s one thing. (Although you’d think he’d wait two months until Obama’s out of office to implement it, rather than stick the current administration with it.) If he’s just winging it, though, that’s something else. One of Trump skeptics’ biggest worries about him on foreign policy during the campaign was that he’d accidentally paint himself into a corner by saying something undiplomatic without carefully considering it and then be forced to stand by what he said purely as a matter of saving face. We may be in that position already. If the president of China calls him and demands an explanation, what does he say? “Gee, I had no idea I was supposed to do that”? They’ll think he’s an idiot. “I meant to do that” might be his only option, even if it’s untrue. Which means the Cold War (hopefully only cold) with China begins on day one.
Oh well. Dubya once said something cowboy-ish about Taiwan early in his first term and that got cleaned up. Presumably this will too, especially if it was Tsai who initiated the call with Trump rather than vice versa. (Did she cold-call him at Trump Tower knowing that he’s inexperienced and wouldn’t realize that he’s not supposed to chat with her?) Besides, the Chinese owe Trump a favor: Once TPP is dead, they’ll be the major economic power in the Far East instead of the U.S. Cutting him a break on a phone call with Taiwan is the least they can do to say thanks.
Update: Not clear yet if State huddled with Trump before the call, but I’m going to guess no: “The White House was not told about Mr. Trump’s call until after it happened, according to a senior administration official.”
Update: If you’re looking for evidence that this was no accident, here’s a recent story about Reince Priebus meeting with President Tsai in October of last year. Priebus’s appointment as chief of staff was described by Tsai as “good news for Taiwan” a few weeks ago. (Another quote from the same story: “Tsai also reiterated Taiwan’s determination to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership during the meeting — a prospect that looks increasingly unlikely under a Trump administration.”)
And here’s circumstantial evidence of a different kind that the call was deliberate…
— Bradford Pearson (@BradfordPearson) December 2, 2016
Update: Like I said, Trump will have no choice but to insist that he took the call knowing full well the effect it would have on diplomacy with China, whether that’s true or not. Bearing that in mind, here’s something from the Taipei Times about Trump’s deliberation before the call:
Trump reportedly agreed to the call, which was arranged by his Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan and the situation in the Taiwan Strait, sources said.
“Taiwan-friendly campaign staff” was a reference to Priebus, I assume. According to Wikipedia, the Taipei Times has “a pro-Taiwan independence editorial line.” That raises another risk from the call:
Biggest risk of Trump's Taiwan call isn't pissing off China. It's giving Taiwan the idea that we'll support them more than we actually will.
— Matt O'Brien (@ObsoleteDogma) December 2, 2016
Is President Tsai walking away from this bold show of outreach by Trump believing that the U.S. is prepared to do more for her and Taiwan than it really is if she now ends up in a confrontation with China?
Update: Note to China: