The ten minute telephone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to Donald Trump will not, by itself, cause a crisis in US-China relations, but it tells us a lot about the President-elect’s approach to foreign policy. First, it seems pretty clear that this was not a case of Trump going off script or of an over-zealous aid pushing a pet idea in the chaos of a transition. The Trump people know that China matters, that Taiwan is a sensitive issue, and that managing U.S.-China relations will be one of their most important and most difficult challenges. Trump and his key advisors knew very well that the world, and Beijing, would pay close attention to any contacts with Taiwan. Trump took the call knowing that Beijing and the rest of the world would be paying attention.
It’s much too early to tell whether Trump’s China policy, much less his foreign policy in general, will be a success; our task now is less to render judgment on his approach than to understand what it will be, and the Taiwan call offers some valuable insights into what is certain to be a disruptive and eventful Presidency. So what does the call tell us?
First, it’s a definite sign that Trump is much less constrained by the past and by the perceived taboos of the foreign policy establishment than any of his predecessors in the last two generations. Trump’s fundamental position toward the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishment is iconoclastic, and the spirit in which he approaches foreign policy is experimental: try things and see what happens. The combination can occasionally lead to brilliant strokes of foreign policy genius, but can also lead to disasters. We don’t know yet which the phone call was, but we can say that a Trump White House, at least until the president himself gains some experience of how difficult and explosive foreign policy can be, is going to be a place that pumps out surprises and unconventional approaches. Trump wasn’t kidding on the campaign trail when he criticized the Washington foreign policy establishment as being stupidly bound up in conventional thinking. He meant every word of it, and he is coming into office as a disruptor.
Second, the Taiwan call tells us that Trump isn’t waiting for January 20th to get Obama’s hands off the foreign policy steering wheel. Obama has been trying to tie his successor’s hands on issues like the Iran deal; Trump is underlining that Obama is a lame duck, that he can’t commit the United States, and that the next administration is going to take a different line. This may or may not be wise, but Trump has so far been extremely successful in isolating and undermining Obama. The Taiwan call was one of many signals that Trump intends to manage American foreign policy very differently from his predecessor; all over the world, leaders are moving away from the postures they adopted in response to Obama’s goals and priorities in order to reposition themselves for the next era.
Third, when it comes to Asia policy, the Taiwan call is a clear sign that Trump is planning to do two things at the same time: to dump the Obama era “pivot to Asia” and simultaneously to assert the American presence in and commitment to Asia in unmistakable ways. Many wondered whether his scuppering of TPP was a sign that the U.S. was leaving Asia; this phone call and the equally surprising one with Duterte make clear that this is not his intention. The Obama pivot involved a trade deal that excluded China, a human rights emphasis calculated to isolate it politically, and a small military presence carefully calculated not to antagonize it. Trump is dropping the effort to marginalize China economically, dropping Obama’s human rights emphasis as counterproductive, and stepping up the effort to deter China with strong military forces and close cooperation with like minded states in the security field.
This may or may not work in Asia, but there is one truth here that needs to be acknowledged: the Obama pivot had already begun to fall apart. TPP was politically unsustainable at home, and the human rights policies of the Obama administration, however noble philosophically, were increasingly unsustainable in an Asia where the power of democratic ideology is on the wane. Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia all seem to be moving away from Western democratic ideas. That is regrettable for many reasons, but if one believes that China’s power needs to be balanced with a collection of regional allies, one must build coalitions with the Asia one has. While many Asian countries remain robustly democratic, too heavy an emphasis on human rights in American regional policy would split rather than unite the region and offer China many opportunities to pull the coalition apart.
As in Europe and the Middle East, eight years of Obama foreign policy largely failed. Despite brave words about engagement, Obama essentially dithered while China created facts on the ground—or at least facts in the sea. He established a pattern of deference to Chinese sensibilities that from his point of view were intended to show a willingness to engage pragmatically, but which were read in Beijing as uncertainty and weakness. Something needed to be done by the next president, no matter who it was, to demonstrate that the U.S. was no longer as easily pushed as Obama had been. Secretary Clinton, had she won, would have also been looking for ways to toughen America’s stance.
There is lots of handwringing over the phone call, and many are understandably nervous about what rabbits the President-elect may next pull out of his hat. But when evaluating this unorthodox and, yes, risky move, one has to remember that it is China, not the United States, that has been rewriting the rules of engagement in the East and South China Sea. It is China that has been unilaterally asserting territorial claims against its neighbors, China asserting jurisdiction over international waters and air space, China failing to rein in the increasingly serious North Korean nuclear program. The power that is challenging the status quo in Asia is not the United States.
A phone call to a Taiwanese leader is something that embarrasses China’s leaders at home. It makes them look weak and ineffective, and puts them under political pressure. If China wants the phone calls to stop, it must stop the provocations on its side. That, presumably, is the message that the Trump team wanted China to receive. Much will depend on how China responds—and on how carefully Team Trump has thought through its own next moves.
In any case, the most important lesson to draw from the ten minute phone call is that the Obama era in American Asia policy has come to an end. We don’t yet know what the new era will bring; the chance that tensions in Asia will ratchet dramatically higher is significant. But the old era is over; in itself, that is not a bad thing. Obama was unable to make his pivot work. Something new has to be tried.