Trump’s Taiwan Kerfuffle—and How the Policy Wonks Got It Wrong
The claim that he had no idea of the political and diplomatic implications when he took his call from Taipei does not hold water.
Are you paying attention to the commotion over Donald Trump’s 10-minute telephone conversation last week with Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president? Anyone who is deserves a trigger warning, or a safe place with toys and cookies, or some such source of comfort. If this mostly conjured kerfuffle is any guide, the egregiously slanted press coverage of the Trump campaign was but prelude to the four years of stenography lying ahead. Mystification, not clarification, is the media’s mission now.
Let’s see if we can sort this out for ourselves. We had better get used to the responsibility.
Sitting up in his glittery tower last Friday, Donald Trump took a call from Tsai that he and his designated veep, Mike Pence, subsequently characterized as casual and congratulatory, president to president-elect. Note immediately: That is the way the Chinese cast it, too. Nobody in Beijing is banging shoes on the table over this. It has since been reported that the call was “intentionally provocative” and “the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan.” But that story named no sources and ran in The Washington Post, which makes it problematic twice. It reads as overstated to me, although evidence of some forethought gathers.
Thesis No. 1: Donald Trump is a schlemiel who is going to knock over all the glasses and silver on the geopolitical table. He is on the record as prepared to disrupt all of Washington’s carefully cultivated problems with Russia—and what will we do without those? Now he is starting in across the Pacific, where we also like our smoldering hostilities just the way we have induced them. “These are major pivots in foreign policy w/o any plan,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat in the Clintonian mainstream, tweeted last week. “That’s how wars start.”
In all of this, watch for the term “status quo.” Grail of the policy cliques, it comes up often. (Note to Senator Murphy: The status quo now leaves us closer to open conflict with Russia and China than we have been in many decades, does it not?)
Thesis No. 2: Donald Trump has just proven himself a diplomatic diamond in the rough. Far from blundering haplessly into an exchange with Taiwan’s president, he has given those cyber-hacking, currency-manipulating, job-stealing people who insist on securing the waters off their shores the way everyone else does a shove just when and where they need it. Never mind that phony, failed “reset” Hillary Clinton tried to fob off on Moscow. This is the real deal. “The president of the United States should talk to whomever he wants if he thinks it’s in the interest of the United States,” the inimitable—thank goodness—John Bolton said the other day, “and nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to.”
Wow. Saddle up. John Wayne lives.
We have two questions to consider. One, is Donald Trump a Dummkopf who needs to hire smart people from the policy cliques very quickly if we are to avoid catastrophe, or is he going to show us what the art of the deal is truly all about? Two, what is the point of this out-of-proportion rumpus among the policy people, faithfully if not competently reproduced in the press? Trump got this squarely right soon after putting the telephone down. “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment,” he asserted in a tweet, “but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
’Tis, Donald. And I have not read a single explanation of this obvious asymmetry that stands up to scrutiny.
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We are well advised now to put aside the rubbish and incessant bombast that passes for press coverage of Trump and cast a cold eye on the man who will be this country’s president in a month or so. No, he is not an intellect—as Reagan was not, as neither of the Bushes was, as Bill Clinton pretended to be but was not. But it is simply not plausible that Trump is as stupid and uninformed as many take him to be. In this case, the thought that Trump had no idea of the political and diplomatic implications when he took his call from Taipei does not hold water.
In my view, we have just witnessed a diplomatic pas de deux featuring Trump and Xi Jinping, China’s president. (Trump in leotards: Now there’s a thing.) Xi has said for weeks that Trump’s election brings US-China relations to a critical moment. Trump spoke to Xi by telephone five days after his election. Xi said afterward that he and Trump had established a respectful rapport, and Xi has the habit—lost to American leaders—of saying what he means. Note in this regard: Henry Kissinger, who has advised Trump, was in Beijing for talks with Xi the same day as the famous telephone call, and Henry, at 93, is not into working off free air miles.
Was the call from Taiwan the outcome of a lot of forward planning? Again, this is almost certainly the case. Indeed, The New York Times reported in Wednesday editions that none other than Bob Dole had been cultivating Trump’s people for many months in behalf of the Taipei government. And it follows with equal certainty that Beijing was aware that it was coming well before Tsai picked up the telephone.
It is worth parsing China’s reaction to the call carefully. There is a lot in it, although one would not know this from reading the hopelessly unobservant press reports.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, indicated a day after the call that Beijing did not see much there there. “We believe it’s a petty action by the Taiwan side,” Wang said at a press conference. “I also believe this will not change the One China policy upheld by the American government for many years.” It is true that Beijing then registered a formal protest, but this was notably mild as such things go. In its “stern representations,” as the foreign ministry called them, it again mentioned the One China policy. Other than that, Beijing’s gesture amounted to little more than a shrug.
Two things to note here. One, in laying responsibility off on Taipei, Beijing lets Trump off the hook. This is the sort of subtlety, deriving from several millennia of diplomacy, one learns to expect from the Chinese. Two, there is only one thing truly at issue here in the Chinese view. It is the One China policy: There can be no departing from it. Other than this, it is not too much to suggest, Beijing seems to have told the president-elect that he can converse with whomever he likes without causing a major diplomatic breach. In my read, the phone call will turn out to resemble the 1,000 jobs at Carrier: a bold gesture changing little or nothing.
“One China” is shorthand for a lot of linguistic subtlety put in place when Nixon and Mao signed the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972. As therein defined, “One China” was a precondition for the eventual normalization of relations. “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China,” the document reads. “The United States Government does not challenge that position.”
To be noted: the communiqué does not commit the United States to recognition of Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan. But in my read—and there must be scholars who would take issue—it effectively, if not in fact, acknowledges the Beijing-Taipei standoff as a late phase in a long civil war. The Taiwan question, in other words, is not an international problem. It is a Chinese problem—this is a key point.
I doubt Trump has any intention of abandoning the Shanghai Communiqué’s terms—and doubt more seriously that he could if he wanted to. He has a lot of Taiwan Lobby people advising him, and with screwballs such as John Bolton in proximity to Trump Tower, arguments in this line are probably already on the table. But Trump has said nothing about a remake of relations this fundamental. He displays little interest, indeed, in the relationship at this level. Trump has been perfectly clear about what he wants: He wants a better deal on the trade and economic side. He is likely to break his pick as he tries to get one, but that is another conversation.
As to the South China Sea and related security questions, a lot of Chinese scholars think Trump will de-escalate, and they may be right. They are not saying so but I will: As Trump has demonstrated in the Russian case, the dealmaker knows the wisdom of recognizing the other side’s perspective—a grave “not-done” among the policy cliques. It may turn out—and let us stay with “may”—that the inevitable rebalancing of power in the western Pacific, now vigorously resisted in Washington, goes more smoothly. This would be a fine thing if it comes to be. Trying to stop history’s clock from ticking, Senator Murphy, is “how wars start.”
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History’s clock is precisely what has the policy cliques aflutter since Trump took his telephone call. Relations with China are not their problem at the moment. The problem is that they may change.
This is “a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” declared Evan Medeiros, a wanderer among the think tanks (including RAND, the Cold War dinosaur). Is that grandiose enough to make you fearful that what is may not always be? Or consider this, from the government-supervised New York Times: “Not since President Richard M. Nixon met with Mao Zedong in 1972—when the two issued the Shanghai Communiqué clarifying the status of Taiwan—has an American leader so shaken up the diplomatic status quo on the issue.”
That term again, status quo. What we hear from Washington and read in the press is nothing more than the panic of those insecure about their inability to think imaginatively and renovate policy frameworks. Nothing has changed in this connection since 1945, and those managing policy now are consequently incapable of anything new. They are unpracticed, performing as mere janitors. The status quo is what they inherited; it must remain because it is the status quo. This we call sclerosis.
What is the status quo? A very misshapen relationship, in a phrase. The United States has sought and achieved densely interdependent ties with China on the economic side since Deng Xiaoping got his reform agenda under way in 1980. On the security side, the Pentagon—which runs Asia policy, if you have not noticed—refuses to accept China’s inevitable emergence as a Pacific power. American businesses invested $75 billion in China as of 2015; the Chinese economy is the world’s largest by some measures, nearly so by others. But the western Pacific is ours to police? “Incoherent” is the mildest term for this.
The Taiwan question is an element of the reigning nostalgia. Having covered both sides of the Taiwan Strait for many years, I am unambivalently certain that a solution to the Taiwan question lies between Beijing and Taipei. Nonetheless, the nation that signed the Shanghai Communiqué still insists on retaining Taiwan as a client. Washington has signed $72 billion in arms contracts with Taipei since Jimmy Carter normalized relations with Beijing in 1979. (For the record, Bill Clinton comes in at No. 1, with $17.5 billion in consummated agreements, and President Obama, the peace prize Nobelist, at No. 2, with $14 billion.)
This is the status quo we are supposed to fear for.
Are you still at a loss as to why taking a telephone call weighs so much more heavily than all that weaponry sold to what Beijing considers a breakaway province? For you, the insufficiently horrified, there is Max Fisher, “The Interpreter,” whose assignment at The New York Times seems to be advising us as to the acceptably conformist way to think on any given question.
“Nonexperts could be forgiven for scratching their heads about the uproar,” our Max writes, cramming two appalling clichés into a single sentence. Arms sales to Taiwan “are an approach intended to maintain the status quo…. Granting Taiwan’s leader informal recognition…is different because it disturbs the status quo.”
Got it, Max. Please do forgive us. The status quo.
I have an idea Xi Jinping wants to depart from the status quo as much as Donald Trump or anyone else thinking clearly about Sino-American relations. The outcome remains to be seen, but that is in the nature of things. People who shrink from uncertainty never get anything useful done—and then fall into decline, which is our true peril.