By Times Headline Writer
Donald Trump’s phone call with the president of Taiwan is raising alarm among top officials in China, particularly following reports the call was not as impromptu as the president-elect insisted, and signals to some observers that he could plan to employ in international diplomacy the aggressive policies and disregard for protocol that he espoused on the campaign trail.
The Friday call breaks with 37 years of U.S. policy in balancing relations with China by limiting its interactions with the island nation, despite Trump’s claims that he simply answered when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen telephoned him to offer congratulations. News reports in Taiwan and the U.S., however, indicate the call had been previously planned by both sides’ political offices. Readouts of their conversation show the discussion moved beyond mere congratulations and into trade and defense, hinting at the president-elect’s intentions to reset one of the world’s most powerful and consequential relationships.
“It gives me concerns. I want the U.S. to be seen as consistent and predictable,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As for how Trump plans to operate when he assumes the presidency, she adds, “It doesn’t look that way to me.”
International attempts to make sense of Trump’s actions shifted sharply over the weekend. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi initially dismissed the call as “just a small trick by Taiwan,” a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that he may have made without the specific approval of top Chinese leaders.
Beijing offered a more purposeful tone by Monday morning, when an op-ed published in English through state news service Xinhua warned that Trump “needs to resist the light-headed calls for provocative and damaging moves on China by some hawkish political elites.”
“It would be a mistake to think that Washington could gain from undercutting Beijing’s core interests,” it continued. “None of the two economic heavyweights could afford a vicious competition with their unprecedented intertwined interests.”
A bootblack polishes the shoes of a client who reads a newspaper with headlines referring to the eventual triumph of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City.
China’s assessment of Trump has fundamentally changed, Glaser says. “They are really quite worried about what policies he might pursue after he becomes president.”
On Twitter and through his surrogates, Trump has subsequently explained that his departure from longstanding U.S. policy is fueled by his campaign pledge to offset what he considers actions by China that threaten U.S. economic interests. He cited China’s devaluing the yuan, imposing tariffs on U.S. goods, and aggressive military actions like building islands and then installing military equipment on them.
These actions, however, are far outweighed by Trump’s exchange with the Taiwanese president, experts say.
“Taiwan is the wrong place for Trump to carry out his agenda,” says Jian Chen, a professor of Chinese-U.S. relations at Cornell University. Trump’s language has already damaged his future relations with China, he says, even though he has yet to assume office. “We must take presidents seriously. After all, there are so many bumpy times in U.S.-China relations, and so many presidents have worked through those challenging areas.”
Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Nov. 14 in one of the president-elect’s first interactions with a foreign leader following the Nov. 8 election. He said the U.S. and China’s would have “one of the strongest relationships” during his presidency and expressed optimism about future cooperation. That conciliatory and open language sharply contrasted with his choice in calling the Taiwanese president and with some of the harsher policies Trump offered during the campaign, further befuddling those trying to anticipate how Trump might act as commander-in-chief.
“It’s very contradictory,” Chen says. “We don’t know. It depends on how he makes his team.”
The true signs of Trump’s intentions as a diplomat will emerge through his Cabinet selections and with whom he fills lower-level leadership positions in the agencies that deal with foreign policy, defense and trade.