Trump is famous for blaming China for all the evils in the world - apart from his Made-in-China ties. "They're beautiful." (Photo: PA/KNE)
Trump's China Policy
It is still hugely unclear what exactly Donald Trump’s foreign policy stances as the next president of the US will be. The recent nomination of the chief executive of Exxon Mobil and BFF of Vladimir Putin, Rex Tillerson, as his preferred US secretary hints that realpolitik and deal-making will be Trump’s foreign policy of choice. While it is still uncertain what America’s new found love with Russia might look like in the future, Trump has made it quite clear that ties with China will fundamentally change.
Throughout the presidential campaign, he was never shy to hide his feelings towards China and in particular the current Sino-US trade relations. After all, 5 out of Trump’s “7 point plan to rebuild the American economy” deal with China, including labelling the country as a “currency manipulator” and bringing trade cases against China with “tough and smart trade negotiators”. However, last week he went a step further and - what many would call a pretty naive move - questioned the “One China” policy by speaking directly on the phone with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ingwen. No other US president or president-elect has spoken with a Taiwanese counterpart since 1979. He even publicly defended the call on Twitter: “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” This, of course, raised many questions. Did he really simply ignore protocol and thought it would be impolite to ignore the call? Or was it supposed to provoke China and show them that he means serious business? Or even more worryingly, did he ignore intelligence briefings and his advisors (or did they even set up the call?) because he is unaware of the diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the topic? Or is he rather fighting for justice and standing up to a bullying China?
The latter is pretty unlikely, especially considering that he mentioned in an interview with Fox News that he would be willing to reconsider the “One China” policy if Beijing was willing to renegotiate its trade relations with Washington. Further, he has repeatedly claimed that he will dump the TPP - a trade agreement he has described as a “disaster” “pushed by special interests who want to rape our country”. Of course, one of the main goals of TPP was to contain China’s influence in the region and help countries such as Taiwan.
So a combination of the first three explanations is most likely. Ignorance and naivety surely played an important role. Shortly after his first tweet on the call - and intense criticism - he tweeted: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” This also highlights why this phone call is so important. It once again underlines Trump’s distaste for established experts, his impulsive decision making and a lack of understanding of their full consequences. As a presidential candidate many forgave his “different” style of campaigning. But as president-elect it was expected that he would adjust to the new circumstances. The call shows that this is clearly not the case. And his repeated defences didn’t make it any better.
"You know, I'm, like, a smart person, I don't have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years. Could be eight years — but eight years. I don't need that. But I do say, 'If something should change, let us know.’" - Donald Trump
At first China reacted surprisingly sober. The foreign minister, Wang Yi, called it a “petty gambit”. The China Daily, the State Council’s publication, reported that there is no need to “over-interpret the call” and that it simply exposed “his transition team's inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs”. However, after Trump explicitly stated that he saw no reason why the US should continue abiding by the “One China” policy in the interview with Fox News, China was quick to harshen its tone. The Chinese government warned that it was seriously concerned. The Global Times wrote in an editorial that Trump was “ignorant as a child” and even suggested that he was “manipulated by hardliners”.
While this incident might be quickly forgotten, it leaves a sour aftertaste for the foreign policy of the upcoming Trump administration. Trump showed China and the rest of the world that he couldn’t care less about diplomatic conventions and predictable US policy. China has responded relatively calmly in order to avoid any unnecessary conflicts before Trump has even become president of the US. But Trump also showed Beijing that he really wants to overturn established Sino-US relations. Even though it is a possibility that he wasn’t aware of the sensitivities surrounding the “Taiwan issue”. This is not only bad news for East Asia but also the rest of the world, increasing uncertainty and possibly risking clashes in conflict regions. Despite this, direct confrontations between the US and America are very unlikely. Both sides have too much to lose. Therefore, it is more probable that Trump will eventually become more pragmatic and drop the inflammatory rhetoric.
“I can clearly say that no matter whether the Tsai Ingwen authority, any other person in the world, or any other force, if they try and damage the ‘One China’ principle and harm China’s core interests, in the end they are lifting a rock only to drop it on their feet.” - Wang Yi, Foreign Minister of China