The minority of people who hoped that election to the presidency would turn Donald Trump into a prudent statesman have had to adjust their expectations. In recent days, the president-elect has managed to appall his country’s top diplomats again and again.
Following a series of telephone conversations with world leaders – with no State Department preparation – Trump last week congratulated Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev on the “great work” he was doing.
On the same day, he spoke with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. According to a transcript of the conversation released by Islamabad, Trump did not flinch at expressing how much he admires the “terrific Pakistanis.”
A crisis could actually result from that conversation, which was noteworthy for the number of compliments exchanged. Trump expressed his desire to visit Pakistan, a visit that, if it happens, could raise the ire of India – or insult the Pakistanis if it doesn’t happen.
But all that schmoozing was merely the warm-up for Trump’s escapades over the weekend. First, he issued a White House invitation to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the man who called President Barack Obama a son of a bitch and who is leading a killing campaign against drug dealers in his country that borders on a war crime.
Following that, the president-elect “took a call” from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – and shattered a diplomatic consensus between Washington, Taipei and Beijing that has been in place since 1979. That year the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China and cut ties with Taiwan, a diplomatic situation that remains in place.
In response to the spate of condemnation following the call, Trump defended himself on his favorite medium, Twitter. He pointed out the absurdity of the United States selling billions of dollars in arms to Taiwan while he’s forbidden to take a call from that country’s president.
Indeed, the president-elect’s undiplomatic behavior put the spotlight on one of the international community’s many agreed-upon lies. It’s not just that Taiwan is one of the largest importers of U.S. weapons, but that Washington is obliged by treaty to defend it against a Chinese invasion. (Though the issue is defined by sufficiently vague diplomatic jargon to leave America’s options open and deter Taiwan from issuing a unilateral declaration of Independence.)
For the Taiwanese president, who only entered office about six months ago, the telephone call appears to have been a great opportunity. Tsai was elected on a platform of strengthening Taiwan’s independence from China, and she saw after her election victory how Beijing terminated its direct communication channel with her.
Against that background, Tsai has been increasingly concerned that Trump’s isolationist approach could lead to a reduction in Washington’s commitment to her country’s security. Following her conversation with Trump, her office issued a statement saying Taiwan hoped the president-elect would strive to strengthen the island nation’s international position.
For its part, Beijing released a statement protesting the phone call, though Foreign Minister Wang Yi played down the issue, saying he did not expect a change in the “One China” policy, which includes Taiwan.
In the United States, commentators struggled to understand the meaning of Trump’s move – whether it was something he pulled out of his sleeve at the urging of pro-Taiwan advisers or an attempt to advance his commercial interests. (According to reports from Taiwan, Trump is considering building hotels on the island.)
A third possibility is that, ahead of a possible trade war with China, Trump is signaling to Beijing that the United States under his leadership has a variety of options for harming China’s interests. It’s possible he considers such a trade war something necessary to “protect the status of American workers.”
Before Taiwan begins preparing for its independence celebrations in the presence of President Trump, it should note that it’s still too early to find coherence in the property mogul’s actions. It’s entirely possible he’ll find someone close who will explain the glaringly obvious to him.
The United States is dependent on China, and a trade war will only hurt his voters at home. And even if not, Trump is unlikely to be in a hurry to send the aircraft carriers to defend Taiwan. In the meantime, he has promised to bury the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which includes many of China’s neighbors and is designed to encourage trade between their companies and counter Beijing’s growing economic power.
And with all due respect to symbolic gestures, the Taiwanese have pinned great hopes, both economic and diplomatic, on the agreement. Even a weekly telephone call between the president’s palace in Taipei and the golden tower in New York is unlikely to be a sufficient replacement.
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