With One Phone Call, Trump Fits China into his Evolving Policy Toolbox

When taken together, Donald Trump’s groundbreaking phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and his outreach to Russian President Vladimir Putin add up to a calculated international policy gambit developed by the incoming administration team. It consists essentially of moves to drive a wedge between the two global giants, Russia and China and so ease the Trump administration’s path for dealing with Beijing with which it has a long list of issues.
Trump’s office said he had spoken with the Taiwanese president, “who offered her congratulations,” adding pointedly that the two leaders had noted “the close economic, political, and security ties” between Taiwan and the United States. Mr. Trump, it said, “also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.”
It has begun to dawn on Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Taipei that there was nothing unrehearsed or spontaneous about this conversation. By speaking directly to the “president of Taiwan,” Trump was fully aware that he had broken with protocol and conferred recognition on the island-state’s sovereignty, thus reversing the “One China” policy the US held since 1979.
It took two days for the penny to drop in Beijing with a thump.
After an initially low-key response, China hardened its tone and warned Trump in a front-page editorial in the overseas edition of People’s Daily, “Creating troubles for the China-US relationship is creating troubles for the US itself,” and pushing China on Taiwan “would greatly reduce the chance to achieve the goal of making America great again.”
Trump had meanwhile followed up on the provocative conversation. He used his Twitter account to repeat his campaign criticism of China’s “monetary policy and territorial ambitions in disputed Asia waters,” and took issue with the notion that he needed China’s consent to speak with the President of Taiwan.
“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!”
The 10-minute conversation with the South Korean president was therefore calculated to signal the demise of the 44-year old China policy instituted in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s epic visit to Communist China After the US severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China evolved as a senior partner in US global and economic policy-making.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke for the incumbent administration this week by chiding the president-elect: “I think it’s valuable to… ask people who work the desk, and have worked it for a long period of time, their input on what’s the current state, and if there is some particular issue at the moment.”
Brushing the reproof aside, the president elect is taking his time before naming Kerry’s successor (ten candidates at the last count), because he has no intention of heeding the orthodox voices he sees as representing the old order which he plans to supersede.
The new secretary of state will be charged with two monumental tasks: One is to follow the president’s guidelines for a comprehensive rewrite of America’s traditional ties, in which “decades of diplomatic effort” were invested; and two, to restock the department with a body of diplomats willing and able to manage Trump’s steps for upending many traditions. It is hard to see a single individual grappling with both tasks.
Amid the crashing rituals, some diplomatic veterans are firing their last shots, accusing the incoming president, of “reckless remarks” and “running the country by Twitter.”
One consigned to the scrap heap is the “globalism” doctrine cherished by the Clinton and Obama administrations and adopted by Europe. The EU is anyway cracking at the seams under a tsunami of anti-establishment populism which is throwing up new faces. Two leading nations voted to break away – the United Kingdom which supported Brexit last June and dumped Prime Minister David Cameron, and Italy, where a referendum on Sunday, Dec. 4, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
In France, too, President Francois Hollande announced this week that he would not lead the Socialists in next year’s presidential election.
Another victim of the changes tearing through the world order is President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” which he designed as an escape from the unending pandemonium of the Middle East. Trump instituted a pivot or his own, well before his swearing in on Jan. 20, when he made Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the first foreign leader he met after his election. The two men spent 90 minutes talking at Trump Tower, but released few details of what they discussed.
His reward came on Tuesday, Dec. 6, with the announcement outside Trump Tower, Manhattan, that the head of the Japanese telecoms and internet firm SoftBank Group Corp had agreed to invest $50 billion in the United States toward businesses and create 50,000 new jobs.
China’s Xi Jinping must have grasped by now that Trump was moving step by step towards resetting future US relations with Beijing and a seismic shift in the regional and global balance of power and world trade. These matters are too serious to wave away by verbal jabs in a newspaper.
As a possible gesture to sweeten the pill and allay Beijing’s fears of an imminent trade war with the US, the president elect Wednesday introduced Terry Branstad, the long-serving Republican governor of Iowa, and a longstanding friend of Xi, as ambassador to China – even before he selected a secretary of state.
Less than a week after Trump’s victory, Branstad paid his seventh visit to China, including a trip to Iowa’s sister-state Hebei. His friendship with the Chinese president dates back to 1983, when Xi made his first trip to the US as a young agriculture officer from that Chinese state. In 2012, the Iowan governor hosted an elaborate dinner in his capital for his friend, who was then vice president of China.

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