It may have been a blunder, but it wasn’t an accidentby Andrew Stuttaford / December 7, 2016 / Leave a comment
The President-Elect in Trump Tower, New York ©AP/Press Association Images When Metternich heard the news that Talleyrand, the legendarily devious French diplomat and statesman, had died he is said to have asked “I wonder what he meant by that?” While the connection between Metternich, Talleyrand and Donald Trump is not obvious, China’s leaders may now be asking themselves a similar question about a series of tweets by America’s next president—and the phone call that set them off. Let’s start with the phone call. On Friday, Trump’s staff announced that The Donald had had a telephone conversation with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, effectively, and publicly, ignoring a long-standing taboo. Officially at least, no American president (or, it is thought, president-elect) has talked to his Taiwanese counterpart since the 1970s, the decade in which the US recognized the People’s Republic as the sole legal government of a China that included Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, those in charge in Beijing were less than thrilled to hear about Trump’s chat with the head of what they see as a fugitive province. “Solemn representations” were lodged with the US. On the other hand, Beijing initially also seemed willing to put the whole incident down to inexperience and widespread suspicions that Trump simply did not know what he was doing were reinforced by a tweet he sent the same day: “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” The caps looked defensive: the president-elect had merely taken a call from a president. Polite! Important! And the sense of defensiveness was underlined by the tweet that came next: “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” Trump was still stressing that Tsai had called him and that the call was about him (congratulations!). But the would-be dealmaker-president also took the time to point out that Taiwan is a good customer of USA, Inc. and, while he was at it, undiplomatically highlighted the extent to which America’s “one China” policy is a convenient fiction. Over the next day or so, The Donald’s tweetflow moved onto more familiar territory: domestic politics, an attack on Saturday Night Live (“unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse”), support for an errant golfer (“Great to have you back Tiger – Special!”) and a spot of mercantilist menace (“Rexnord of Indiana is moving to Mexico and rather viciously firing all of its 300 workers. This is happening all over our country. No more!”), but concern over the call continued to bubble away. Grumbling that through ignorance, recklessness or bravado, the president-elect had done real damage to relations with China, America’s chatterati appeared as upset as the apparatchiks in Beijing. So on Sunday Trump tweeted again on China: “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 US doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!” If the call, which lasted for about ten minutes, had not originally been thought through, it was now being defended in terms that looked a lot like policy. There were hints of the trade fight to come, including over the yuan (formally designating China a “currency manipulator” could pave the way for retaliatory action) as well as more conventional strategic concerns over Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea. And note the implication contained in the tweet’s opening few words: The president who is going to make America great again is not going to ask any third country for permission to make a phone call or, for that matter, for permission to do quite a bit more besides. Whether or not it was a blunder, the best guess is that the call was not an accident. It followed months of cultivating Team Trump on Taiwan’s behalf by former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, who now works as a lobbyist in Washington. As for Trump himself, well, five years ago he tweeted this: “Why is @BarackObama delaying the sale of F-16 aircraft to Taiwan? Wrong message to send to China. #TimeToGetTough” Team Trump may be downplaying the significance of the call with Tsai (Vice President-elect Pence has referred to it as a “courtesy call”) and Taiwan’s president, acutely aware of the perils of her neighborhood, has said that it should not be taken as an indication of a “policy shift.” “We all,” she told USA Today, “see the value of stability in the region.” Nevertheless, despite the characteristic confusion and bluster, Trump was almost certainly sending a signal by taking Tsai’s call. The US has neglected the art of great power politics since the fall of the Soviet Union, firstly because it could (for quite a while it had no serious rivals) and secondly, after chastening in Iraq and the election of Obama, because it preferred to put its faith in an internationalist order—from the European Union to the United Nations and beyond—that allowed it to pretend that such selfish maneuvering could safely be consigned, as the lofty phrase went, to the nineteenth century. Trump is clearly under no such illusion. He believes that America is number one, but he also appears willing to accept that there are other big kids on the block with interests of their own and little intention of playing by the globalist equivalent of the Queensberry rules. Put another way, he is comfortable with a traditional idea of great power rivalry, and engaging in the jostling that comes with it. If reordering America’s trading relationship with China is high on Trump’s agenda—and it is—then he will be looking for leverage, and that may include the threat to cozy up to Taiwan. It’s a threat that comes with the added advantage that it is likely to please a Republican Party that Trump still needs to reassure. Taiwan, after all, is a friendly democracy, the People’s Republic not so much. But diplomacy by tweet comes with hazards, particularly when those tweets are being generated by someone with remarkably poor impulse control. There’s a difference between what China can accept and what it can be seen to accept. Push too much and too publicly and Beijing might take a far harder line—be it on trade or be it on Taiwan—than might otherwise be the case. Calculating the right balance is a tricky task—but American voters have been led to think Trump can handle it. He is the self-proclaimed maestro of the deal, after all. Whether he will succeed in doing so is an entirely different question. Chinese criticism of the call sharpened after Trump declined to back down. That said, as I write, it’s being reported that Trump’s nominee as US ambassador to China will be Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who has got on well with Chinese president Xi Jinping since the 1980s. That’s a signal too.