During the presidential race, Donald Trump made various outrageous remarks criticizing China. After Trump was elected, Beijing might have made an assessment that China-U.S. relations could be bumpy for the next four years, but it did not predict that Trump would attack Beijing before taking office by choosing the the most sensitive and explosive issue concerning the relationship between the two countries and “poking at” the topic of Taiwan. Henry Kissinger, deeply respected by Trump, visited Trump days before and then, in what was perhaps a special mission, visited Beijing and vouched for Trump to the Chinese leaders Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan in an effort to contribute to the healthy development of US-China relations. Hours later, Trump and Tsai Ing-wen spoke on the phone, which not only showed up Beijing, but also put the 93-year-old Kissinger in an awkward position.
Regarding the conversation between Trump and Tsai, Beijing’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly described it as “little tricks.” Many people from both the U.S. and China consider the rookie politician Trump to be unfamiliar with the complexity of the cross-strait issue, which could create a disaster and lead to tension between China and Taiwan. These views reveal only part of the problem, not the entire picture.
In fact, the call between Trump and Tsai shattered a 37-year-old acknowledgment between the U.S. and China on the issue of Taiwan. Trump even publicly tweeted about Tsai as the president of Taiwan, as if hinting that the U.S. recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation. How could Beijing take matter this lightly? On the surface, by temporarily putting up with this, China seems to be playing down the situation. Underneath, China has its reasons for keeping a hidden agenda. The reason is that Beijing could not easily react when Trump, still not yet in office, received a congratulatory phone call; meanwhile, the Obama administration flatly denied any knowledge of the call. If Beijing now opposes Trump, certainly the lack of forbearance in small matters upsets great plans. By not directly criticizing Trump, Wang Yi gave Trump time to turn back from his actions elevating U.S. treatment toward Taiwan. Nevertheless, Beijing had already set Tsai Ing-wen’s administration as a target. Taiwan should now get ready to defend against the myriad upcoming consequences.
Was the call between Trump and Tsai really an unintentional mistake by Trump due to his lack of understanding about the complexity of the cross-strait issue? Trump’s former campaign manager and current senior adviser for Trump’s presidential transition team, Kellyanne Conway, spoke with CNN to refute this view, saying that Trump was “fully knowledgeable about these issues on an ongoing basis, regardless of who is on the other end of the phone,” and that he is “well aware of what U.S. policy has been on Taiwan,” thus shattering the speculation about any unintentional mistake.
Over the last few days, details regarding actions by the U.S. and Taiwan have surfaced and indicate that this phone call was a meticulously planned operation on both sides, with Tsai’s phone call to Trump having already been negotiated by both countries prior to the conversation, and the fact that discussion details followed the routine of an exchange between the two countries. In addition, the key person responsible for the phone call arrangements was the founder of the American Heritage Foundation, Edwin Feulner. Another key person was Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Trump’s future chief of staff, who has previously visited Taiwan many times and been received by Tsai.
What caused Beijing’s headache was the utter lack of knowledge beforehand about this incident, because despite Trump’s outrageous remarks criticizing China prior to his election, Trump’s team created a false impression leading China to misjudge that he would adjust his tough stance on Chinese policies just as he had retreated from many of his campaign commitments post-election. However, China seems to have forgotten what Trump said during the election about policy toward China. “I want to be unpredictable,” Trump said, adding, “I don’t want the other side to know what my views are.”
The biggest illusion that Trump’s team created was reverence for Kissinger, an old and highly respected friend of previous Chinese leaders. On Nov. 18, Trump held a high-profile meeting to consult with Kissinger on U.S. relations with China and Russia. Only days later, Kissinger was “dispatched” and hurriedly rushed to Beijing, leaving an impression that he was easing the tension between Trump and China. After meeting with Trump, Kissinger praised him repeatedly, apparently feeling reassured while delivering the same message to China, before being personally received by Xi Jinping. Unexpectedly, early on the morning of the following day, Trump spoke with Tsai, causing Beijing imaginable anger and embarrassment.
If Trump clearly understood the complexity and explosiveness of the relations between the U.S., China, and Taiwan, as Conway put it, and insisted on disturbing those relations, the following considerations should be noted.
First, Trump deliberately challenged the tradition of “political correctness” in Washington diplomacy. One of the popular candidates for secretary of state and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said, “Nobody in Beijing gets to dictate who we talk to.” The director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Dan Blumenthal, asked, “When did not angering China become the U.S. strategy?”* This exchange reflects the importance of the conservative staff in Trump’s government, where there is opposition and opinion pitted against the pro-Beijing camp.
Second, Trump’s team deliberately took advantage of the pre-inauguration “gray area” to test China’s baseline. If China were to forcefully retaliate, it could publicly return to the “One-China” issue. The Republicans passed the 2016 Republican Party Platform that includes, for the first time, the “Six Assurances” toward Taiwan, explicitly supporting arms sales to Taiwan and Taiwan’s participation in international events. This will undeniably plant a seed of distrust for U.S.-China relations. The prospects for U.S.-China relations are hazy.
*Editor’s note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.
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