What others say: Trump’s Taiwan phone conversation sends mixed diplomacy signals

  • Thursday, December 8, 2016 4:24pm
  • Opinion

As a nation, we’re slowly getting used to President-elect Donald Trump’s shock-and-awe style of communication. He made clear during the campaign that he has no patience for political correctness — he thinks it’s the language of wimps and do-nothings. Exaggeration-for-effect is more the Trumpian way.

That’s effective in friendly venues like an Ohio town hall meeting, we suppose. But in the ramp-up to his presidency Trump has begun giving the rest of the world a peek at his tell-it-like-it-is leadership, and the result is a marvel mixed with hints of danger. He has until his Jan. 20 inauguration to find a global voice that is both authentic and responsible.

On Friday, Trump accepted a telephone call from Taiwan’s president, ostensibly to congratulate him on his election victory. But there was a lot more to it than nicety. Taking the call was viewed as a precedent and a provocation directed at China because Taiwan and China are estranged and the United States officially recognizes only the government in Beijing.

Treating Taiwan like just another nation threatens to upend decades of delicate diplomacy, a fact Trump seemed to acknowledge when he confirmed on Twitter that he received the call: “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!”

Nothing in that tweet would appear controversial to the American public. But the U.S. is extremely careful to distinguish between its official relationship with China and unofficial relationship with Taiwan. There appears to be no record of an American president or president-elect speaking to a Taiwanese president since the U.S. switched in 1979 from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing Beijing as the government of China. Referring in public to Taiwan’s “president” was an extra poke in the eye to Beijing, which “lodged solemn representations” with Washington over the call — that’s diplomatic-speak for venting mighty anger.

Trump showed similar cheek in a call with Pakistan’s prime minister. He expressed giddy optimism about relations (Pakistan is a “fantastic” country full of “fantastic” people), though the U.S. has big problems with Pakistan’s behavior, notably spotty cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Goodness, what’s next? Mr. President-elect, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is on line 2.

From Trump’s perspective, there is shrewdness to the showmanship. Supporters love it when he talks like Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” He won their hearts promising a tough, common-sense approach. These phone calls send the message that he’ll be as different as possible from President Barack Obama, whom detractors lambasted for appearing equivocal or appeasing in the face of adversaries.

Trump also has a pet peeve about America seeming too deliberate and predictable in its actions. Why announce negotiating positions, he wondered during the campaign? Why spell out military strategy in advance? Better to keep the world guessing about American intentions because that’s the secret to negotiating good deals. He likely figures putting Beijing off balance adds to U.S. bargaining power over issues such as trade or freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The risk with that approach comes with the stakes. If Pakistan’s government thinks Trump is in its corner, that could affect how Pakistani leaders manage tense relations with India. Which, in turn, could cause the Indians to react in unforeseen ways that ratchet up tension. The same is true, writ larger, for China: Diplomatic gamesmanship over Taiwan could have real-world military consequences, because China has threatened to invade Taiwan if it ever officially declares independence.

Yes, government officials worldwide can focus too much on the pieties of diplomacy: “What savory canapes at the French ambassador’s reception!”

But the larger point of diplomacy is to manage relationships in ways that promote cooperation and paper over differences to mitigate the chances of conflict. Diplomacy is a game best played with quiet nuance by deep thinkers. That’s why the Washington experts dropped their monocles in the soup when they heard Trump had spoken with Taiwan’s president. Messing with the carefully tended status quo can have repercussions. Cautious behavior may look timid, but it also can prevent surprises — and startling, even menacing, reactions.

Trump is still not president. He hasn’t named a secretary of state. Once in office, he may lead the country in new directions on global issues. That will be his prerogative.

Once inaugurated, Trump’s in command. He either embraces the art of diplomacy, or the country buckles up for a bumpy ride.


—The Chicago Tribune, Dec. 5, 2016

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