Reality show star-turned-president elect Donald Trump overturned 37 years of United States diplomatic protocol yesterday by talking to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. Mainland China has already lodged a diplomatic protest through their Foreign Ministry, saying that “The one China principle is the political basis of the China-US relationship.”
“This is just the Taiwan side engaging in a petty action,” remarked the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing. America “cannot change the ‘one China’ structure already formed by the international community,” he said.
The People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan a temporarily-estranged part of their sovereign territory — ‘One China.’ The island retreat for Nationalist forces defeated by Chairman Mao’s communist revolution, Taiwan has remained independent in fact, if not name, even while the entire world has recognized Beijing as the legitimate government.
The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along.
It’s important to remember that in the great sweep of history, the alternative to “getting along” is war. Ordinarily, the US president does not talk to the president of Taiwan in order to avoid war. The Trump team’s decision to arrange the call is therefore likely to be seen as a deliberate provocation encouraged by the neoconservatives in his orbit, such as potential Secretary of State pick John Bolton, who also met with Trump yesterday. Bolton has called for full diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in answer to new Chinese military bases in the South China Sea.
WHAT THE HELL???? https://t.co/s9EqhOjoT8
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) December 2, 2016
But there may also be a more mundane explanation for this fiasco. According to the Taiwanese China Times, Trump has ambitions to take part in a huge development project at Taoyuan, and Shanghaiist reports that Eric Trump is coming to the island soon in order to get a first-hand look at opportunities to emblazon the family name on hotels and resorts.
Do Trump’s motivations even matter? Isaac Stone Fish, a scholar of US-Chinese relations, tells the Guardian that they do. “If [the Chinese] view this as a blunder, they could decide to move quickly to exploit Trump’s inexperience and incompetence in foreign affairs.”
“I don’t know whether Trump and his advisers understood the unprecedented nature of this phone call, or how much he debated the effect this may have with his advisers beforehand,” Fish said in an email. “But the issue of whether or not they knew is hugely important. It helps determine how much trust and respect Americans, and governments around the world, should have in Trump and his team’s competence in handling US foreign policy – if he and his team didn’t know this would cause a stir, then they deserve less respect and trust.”
In other words, the best outcome here is that Trump’s call with Tsai Ing-wen gets seen in foreign capitals as evidence of corruption. Kleptocrats are common enough that most nations know how to deal with them effectively. Bolton’s role as an instigator is worrying by comparison, to be sure, but the worst possible perception would be that the phone call took place out of utter ignorance. For what it’s worth, the Trump Organization is saying that they knew exactly what the score was.
The foreign office of every national executive on the planet will be making this same calculation today. They are likely to conclude that Donald Trump can be bought. He has not said or done anything to persuade them otherwise.
Of course, Trump’s words will still matter, for they are already shaking up the international order in ways that do not lead toward peace. Pakistan is taking him literally when he seems to support them against India; mishandled just right, these two nations could give the world an unforgettable lesson in mutual nuclear holocaust.
It doesn’t take an international relations expert to see how this will probably work out. Governments will have every incentive to make Donald Trump the richest man on the planet by constructing an intricate web of profitable deals that keep his interests balanced between Beijing and Taiwan, Islamabad and New Delhi, and so on. Constructed of personal interest, this new arrangement will replace the old America-centric international order, which at least pretended to be a moral system based on law and rights. Again, that’s assuming he doesn’t screw it up and destroy us all.
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