Donald Trump in transition is like no other president-elect. Usually, the approach during the handover period between administrations is low-key, focusing on making key appointments, the announcements of which are the biggest news a president-elect is likely to make.
But Trump, as you may have noticed, is different. He does not even have a secretary of state yet, and he is already breaking diplomatic precedent that has stood for decades.
We refer to the now-historic Taiwan call. Trump’s decision to accept a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday was the first public communication between U.S. and Taiwanese leaders since 1979.
The reaction was largely predictable. Trump critics were critical, even sneering. They seized on the opportunity to depict him once again as an impulsive, blundering amateur, the ultimate bull in the China shop.
Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq (2009-10), said, “It was an example of what is all too often happening now with this incoming administration, this tendency to wing it. What I’m concerned about is that rather than acknowledge a mistake, they will double down on it,” he told CNN.
Secretary of State John Kerry was peeved that the transition team didn’t seek advice from his experts at State before the call.
“I do think there’s a value, obviously, on having at least the recommendations. Whether you choose to follow them or not is a different issue, but I think it’s valuable to ask people who work the desk, and have worked it for a long period of time, their input on what’s the current state, is there some particular issue at the moment,” Kerry said.
Of course, given the Trump advisors’ probable opinion of the Kerry advisors, they presumably felt that asking their advice would have no value other than to give the appearance of knowing how to do things, of not appearing like novices. That evidently did not concern them.
Trump spokespersons downplayed the event. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told the media that “all he did was receive a phone call. I think everybody should just calm down. He’s aware of what our nation’s policy is,” she said.
It had been suggested that the man did not know about the One-China policy — that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decided that mainland China, not Taiwan, would be the “one,” and that we don’t even talk to the other China.
This would seem to be more unthinking anti-Trump propaganda.
The call was planned long in advance, according to informed sources on both sides.
Richard Grenell, a former State Department official and Trump transition advisor, commented that “of course all head-of-state calls are well planned,” and noted that the call came two weeks after Trump had spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and overturned no established verities.
“There was no policy discussion, and everyone involved is well aware of the ‘One China’ policy,” Grenell said.
Alex Huang, a spokesman for Tsai, confirmed to Reuters: “Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact.”
What did surprise was the reaction from Beijing. We have grown accustomed to their belligerence and to Washington’s limitless tolerance for it. Protests from the U.S. and its allies about Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea are routinely and brutally rebuffed. Even the unprecedented snub of President Barack Obama and his entourage at Hangzhou airport in September was explained away as “just one of those things.”
But this time, there was no saber-rattling from Beijing. They waited a day before filing an official complaint, and chalked it up to Trump’s “inexperience.” The impression given was that they were so astonished by the move they were virtually speechless.
Rather than an impulsive, ill-considered act, there was every indication that taking the call from Taiwan was a deliberate signal to friends and foes alike that the foreign policy of the United States under President Donald Trump will not be more of the same.
A change in Far East policy has been in the works for quite a while. Although it garnered almost no coverage at the time, Trump allies were responsible for a clause in the Republican Party platform of 2016 reaffirming assurances of support to Taiwan made by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, along with tougher language regarding China.
Trump’s online posting after the call and the criticism drew more criticism.
“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?” Trump asked. “I don’t think so!”
Whatever the merits of this view, issuing foreign policy statements on Twitter is a dubious innovation, fine for a political campaign but far too informal and impromptu for weighty affairs of state. It gives the impression of somebody popping off — neither presidential nor prudent. If he wants the U.S. to be taken more seriously by China, this is not the way to do it.
As for the One-China policy itself, a review may be in order. The U.S. wants to be Taiwan’s closest military and trade ally — but without formal “diplomatic ties,” out of deference to Beijing.
Trump has not said that he will do away with the policy. In the final analysis, he may conclude that the absurdity of such a thing is not necessarily an argument against it. Its usefulness may outweigh its illogic.
But that is still not a reason to get so worked up over a phone call from Taiwan.