“That is wonderful,” was the opening remark from President Rutherford B Hayes as he listened to the first caller on the White House switchboard in 1877, a year after the telephone was invented.
More famously Jack Kennedy set up the first hotline to the Kremlin in 1963, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Disappointingly it was a teleprinter rather than the red telephone of Hollywood imagination, although that meant an unexpected first message, when the Americans sent “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’s back 1234567890” to test that all the letters and numerals were working.
The hotline to Moscow shifted to email in 2008 but it was telephone pleasantries from Donald Trump that were testing superpower relations this week, after he took a call last Friday from Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese president. That was the first presidential interaction between the two sides since Jimmy Carter ended formal diplomatic relations in 1979.
But in trashing almost 40 years of diplomatic protocol, Trump has startled the Chinese and shocked the American foreign policy establishment. He seems undaunted, taking to Twitter to defend himself. So what’s going on?
How did the Chinese respond to the initial call?
Tsai Ing-wen called the American president-elect to congratulate him on his election win. Trump’s team put out a statement saying that the two had talked about the close economic, political and security ties between Taiwan and the United States, and that Trump had congratulated Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan this year.
That was enough to spark a storm in the international press, with media noting that decades of US-China diplomatic niceties were being cast into disarray.
No American president (or president-in-waiting) has spoken directly to Taiwan since Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing. The Chinese view Taiwan as a renegade province and since 1979 it has been the official position of the US that the government in Beijing is the sole government of China.
Beijing’s response to last week’s telephone call was measured, however, lodging a “solemn representation” with the Americans, and urging them to “cautiously and properly handle” the issue of Taiwan.
The response in the Chinese media was relatively low-key as well, with the China Daily describing the call as demonstrating “nothing but the inexperience Trump and his transition team have in dealing with foreign affairs”.
More Chinese scorn was reserved for Taiwan’s leader, who was chastised by Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, for her “petty trick”.
The China Daily was similarly unimpressed on this score, warning that “it would be a mistake for Tsai and her party to over-interpret the significance of the call” and that any efforts to “stir up tension… will ultimately backfire”.
But if the plan from Beijing was to turn the page and move on, Trump refused to take the hint, tweeting a furious riposte regarding his right to talk to the Taiwanese.
“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!” he asked, via Twitter, on Sunday.
Why all the excitement over a telephone call?
As Trump tweeted last weekend, it seems odd that the Americans can sell the Taiwanese billions of dollars of weapons, but can’t converse formally with their leader.
Nonetheless, dealing directly with Tsai puts pressure on the ‘one China’ construct agreed between Beijing and Taipei – i.e. that there is only one country encompassing the mainland and the island of Taiwan, even if there is disagreement between the two on how unification should be pursued.
Washington acknowledges the diplomatic niceties of ‘one China’ as well, and Taiwan’s de facto political autonomy requires dexterity from all concerned, including Taiwan’s leaders, who eschew the formal title of ‘President of Taiwan’ and call themselves ‘President of the Republic of China’ instead.
Not that Trump’s team bothered with the distinction in the initial statement about Tsai’s call. And he ignored it again in a tweet following their conversation, making it block-capital clear that “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!”
This is the kind of off-the-cuff remark that has been unnerving the foreign policy establishment, especially as the use of the term “president” could imply the view that Taiwan is a sovereign state. China has been resolute in denying even a hint of actual sovereignty for Taiwan, and warns that it would respond forcefully to any declaration of independence.
Was this a gaffe or was it deliberate provocation?
Trump made it sound as if Tsai had called him, although Taiwanese officials have told Reuters that the conversation had been set up in advance. The Washington Post agrees, describing the call as “an intentionally provocative move… according to interviews with people involved in the planning.”
Mike Pence, Trump’s future vice-president, then denied that the conversation indicates a shift in US policy, and sounded frustrated about the furore it had created.
“It’s a little mystifying to me that President Obama can reach out to a murdering dictator in Cuba in the last year and be hailed as a hero for doing it and President-elect Trump takes a courtesy call from a democratically-elected leader in Taiwan and it’s become something of a controversy,” he argued.
But while some of Trump’s team say that it was a courtesy call, others describe the dialogue as a more dramatic departure.
Comments from John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, and another of Trump’s advisers, have implied that the new administration is ready for a rougher ride in Sino-US ties, for instance.
“Honestly, I think we should shake the relationship up [with China],” Bolton told Fox News. “Nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to.”
Bolton is one of a number of candidates said to be under consideration as secretary of state in Trump’s government. In January he authored an article arguing that the Americans could “play the ‘Taiwan card’ against China” by welcoming Taiwanese diplomats officially, inviting Taiwan’s president to visit on official business, and even restoring full diplomatic recognition.
Away from the specifics of the relationship with Taiwan, the chat with Tsai might also be a signal to the Chinese that Trump is prepared to be unpredictable in his foreign policy and that he sees no harm in hyping up his reputation as a hardball negotiator.
The Obama administration was alarmed by events, however, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said senior officials had spoken twice with Chinese counterparts to reiterate Washington’s commitment to its longstanding China policy. “If the president-elect’s team has a different aim, I’ll leave it to them to describe,” he said pointedly.
The concern is that a prolonged war of words could escalate into a situation similar to the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995, when the Chinese staged missile tests around the island in response to Lee Teng-hui (Taiwan’s leader at the time) making a speech at his alma mater, Cornell.
The Americans responded by deploying aircraft carriers to the region in their biggest display of military might in Asia since the Vietnam War.
What seems clear today is that China’s leaders are going to have to adjust to a man who hankers for the headlines on an hourly basis. Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style is also jarring for a Chinese leadership that prefers bland, scripted pronouncements regarding its international relations.
And the reaction in Taiwan?
Pro-independence newspapers have described the call as a coup for Tsai, who has infuriated Beijing by refusing to endorse the ‘one China’ policy in the same way as her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou (see WiC326 for more, plus WiC340 for some of the consequences).
“Trump taking the call from Tsai not only helps put Taiwan back on the world map, but it sends a stern message to those nations who chose to kowtow to China’s bullying and let Beijing dictate what they can do when it comes to interacting with Taiwan,” the Taipei Times celebrated.
Yet Tsai’s team has been careful not to gloat about events and a spokesman for her office put out a statement advising that Taiwan’s relations with Beijing and Washington are “equally important”.
“One phone call does not mean a policy shift,” Tsai then told USA TODAY. “We all see the value of stability in the region.”
There were also warnings from Taiwan’s Apple Daily newspaper that Trump is using the island “as a chess piece” and shouldn’t be trusted.
Lin Chong-pin, a former deputy defence minister in Taiwan’s government, was similarly suspicious about the depths of his commitment. “Will Taiwan help improve the US domestically? Yes, by buying weapons,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Will the US come to Taiwan’s rescue when the People’s Liberation Army attacks Taiwan? Of course not.”
What happens next?
Trump took a confrontational tone on China for much of his presidential campaign, and the evidence of the last few days is that he might not do much to moderate it once he assumes office.
China’s leaders seem prepared to adopt a wait-and-see approach, although their resolve could be tested if Trump says more on Taiwan that challenges their claim to the island.
Next month Tsai is expected to transit through the US on her way back from a trip to Central America. This week the State Department rejected Chinese calls not to let her onto American soil, although her trip is sure to be watched closely.
Further signals that Trump is breaking with precedent on Taiwan could test cooperation from China over climate change and Beijing might shelve its support for the latest round of sanctions on North Korea agreed at the UN last week.
A worsening mood may stoke tensions around China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, where Beijing could move beyond the verbal warnings it has been giving US freedom of navigation patrols in disputed waters.
Another view: Trump may have seized on Taiwan as an opening gambit for bringing Beijing to the table on a wider range of issues in the months ahead. Conversely, in a gesture of goodwill, Trump just named Terry Branstad, a long-time personal friend of President Xi Jinping, as ambassador to Beijing. Xi and the governor of Iowa first met when the Chinese leader, then a junior official in Hebei, made his first trip to Iowa in 1985. The Global Times said Branstad’s appointment suggested “there may be another dimension to Trump’s desire to maintain communications and friendliness with China” and should be given “a positive response”.
For the Taiwanese, the more immediate concern is that Beijing could step up its efforts to isolate the island, further restricting mail and air services from the mainland, and intensifying its efforts to persuade the small group of states which still have diplomatic relations with Taipei to recognise Beijing instead.
“For any out-of-line move made by Tsai Ing-wen, the mainland has the ability to punish every one of them, and should exercise these capabilities without hesitation,” the Global Times has threatened. “Taiwan authorities will pay for whatever effort they make to alter the status quo,” it added menacingly.
Trump’s tweets also pose a challenge for Xi Jinping by stirring the nationalist soup that bubbles close to the surface of Chinese society.
That’s why government censors have been trying to block discussion about the Trump-Tsai call on social media. Additionally, the Chinese president won’t want to display any sign of weakness in the months leading up to next year’s Party Congress, when the Politburo’s Standing Committee is set for a shake-up.
There are also signs that the Chinese press is readying itself for more turbulent times. “No matter what the reasons are behind Trump’s outrageous remarks, it appears inevitable that Sino-US ties will witness more troubles in his early time in the White House than any other predecessor,” the Global Times argued in another op-ed on Monday. “We must be fully prepared, both mentally and physically, for this scenario.”
Be ready for Trumplomacy, in other words…
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