Contrary to the media’s first reaction, President-elect Donald Trump’s telephone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday was not a brainless blunder. It was in fact a planned first shot in the diplomatic and trade tug-o-war with China.
Immediately after Trump won the Nov. 8 election, his staffers compiled a list of foreign leaders with whom to arrange calls. “Very early on, Taiwan was on that list,” said Stephen Yates, a national security official during the presidency of George W. Bush and an expert on China and Taiwan. “Once the call was scheduled, I was told that there was a briefing for President-elect Trump. They knew that there would be reaction and potential blowback.”
Trump’s team knew that China would react, and in fact they reacted strongly, both in words and symbolic (for now) deeds.
Trump sent two Twitter messages Sunday that echoed his campaign-stump blasts against 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 U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?” he asked. “I don’t think so!”
The People’s Republic flew two nuclear-capable bombers around the nationalist Chinese island it claims as its own on Nov. 26, causing Japan to scramble F-15 jets to intercept.
“This was the first time that Chinese aircraft circled around Taiwan,” Deputy National Defense Minister Lee Hsi-ming said, adding that China has said similar flights would occur in the future according to Focus Taiwan News Channel.
“China has steadily built up a massive military capability in the area around Taiwan. This isn’t simply a matter of flying bombers. Understand that technically, we can’t object to flying bombers near Taiwan if we are flying combat aircraft and reconnaissance aircraft near China. This is simply legal under international law,” Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “Taiwan faces a much more serious Chinese challenge than it has ever faced before.”
China has long experience with “gunboat diplomacy.” In 1839, the British blockaded the Pearl River to force the Canton government to agree to terms in what became the First Opium War. That war is largely blamed by Chinese for the fall of the Qing dynasty and referred to as the “Century of Humiliation.”
America also used this kind of military extortion in the far east when Admiral Perry arrived at Edo Bay in Japan in 1852. Possibly an inspiration some of Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, more colorful quotes, Perry displayed a white flag of truce while sending a letter telling the Japanese that should they choose to fight, he would destroy them all. He did this while firing blanks from the 73 cannon aboard his flagship, the Susquehanna.
Trump’s planned call from the Taiwanese president is the opening shot in a game of trade “war” where gunboat diplomacy is not out of the question, and the fate of Taiwan hangs in the balance. Let’s not mince words, there’s absolutely nothing America could do if the Chinese on the mainland decided to invade and take Taiwan, short of full-on war with our second largest trade partner. But let’s also recognize that such a course would be catastrophic for both China and for the United States (and the world economy).
This trade “war” is much more subtle than that, but it does involve a certain amount of eye-poking, cheek-slapping, and gauntlet-throwing. The Chinese seem to be prepared for this. Knowing Trump’s history, he’s unlikely to back down publicly, but will negotiate privately for his goals.
What we don’t really know (other than “Make America Great Again”) is what Trump’s specific bargaining goals are. He’s almost certainly not going to tell the press (because then he’d be held accountable).
Trump has not even taken office, and he’s already positioning America for the kind of winning he sold voters on. It’s not very clear at all how he’ll do it, or if we will actually win–never mind the 23.5 million souls who live on an island just 125 miles off the coast of the biggest remaining communist power on earth.