First of all, it doesn’t matter that Trump said “She [President Tsai] called me.” Obviously she didn’t do that out of the blue. Nor did the call become publicly known through random carelessness. If Trump wanted the call to remain a secret, I’d bet on Tsai agreeing to that. And vice versa. Both sides knew what they were doing, in having the call as well as in allowing it to be made public.
So the question really is why Trump did this. The mainstream media have been painting him as a bull crashing a (wait for it) china shop, but they’ve been hard put to come up with a more damaging narrative than that. After all, Obama has had his own strained relations with China. The narrative for years has been that China is kind of generally disliked, and is being unfairly misunderstood mainly when it’s someone like Mitt Romney or Donald Trump doing the misunderstanding. Otherwise, it’s just China being non-collegial and sour-tempered.
The media don’t have ready-to-hand narratives about China to beat Trump with. So they’re just sort of falling back on the “Trump has breached an unwritten 40-year-old rule” theme. They probably won’t flog it much longer. It’s boring, especially if China doesn’t react with tooth-gnashing fury.
RedState, which takes a dim view of Trump’s intelligence, has also taken a more trenchant line in criticizing his latest move.
If we all believed that this was a deliberate move by Trump to signal a different policy towards China and Taiwan, that would be one thing. One might even admire it . . . with some trepidation. After all, Taiwan should have a right to its independence, right? The U.S. should respect that and recognize that, right?
But instead, I can’t shake the feeling that Trump just didn’t bother to read his briefing books and had no idea of the significance of what he was doing…
I actually think most of the critics are missing the point. I don’t think Trump meant to signal a different policy toward “China and Taiwan,” meaning on the issue of their relations per se.
I think he meant to signal to China that negotiating with him is going to be a different proposition from what negotiations were during the Obama years. Or the Bush years or Clinton years, for that matter.
Trump isn’t the president yet. So he has latitude to accept phone calls today that he can’t accept 48 days from now, without signaling that specific U.S. policy has actually changed. Now is exactly the time to take unusual phone calls.
And nothing that’s within Trump’s power to do would signal as clearly that China will shortly be facing a very different negotiator. Trump’s priority issue isn’t the status of Taiwan. Think hard: we all know what it is. It’s trade and U.S.-China financial dealings. I imagine Trump’s team is busy packaging those priorities with military and theater-strategic concerns to compile an agenda on China. And nothing will be off the table, including things that nations like Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and Vietnam will like. But Trump’s not going to tip his hand on that prematurely.
You’d think Americans had never seen a negotiator at work before. This is what Trump does for a living: shape the framework of expectations for the negotiations he’ll be going into. He’s laying groundwork. Part of that, in a number of venues, will probably be surprising the other party or parties to the negotiations, throwing them off guard, and/or putting down markers. Those are all negotiating tactics.
The vision of Trump as a self-made billionaire who somehow got to be 70 years old without being able to reason his way out of a paper bag makes a lot less sense to me than trying to understand him through the coin of the realm he comes from. It looks to me like he’s prepping the battle space to do government business, his way.
Is it the way we’ve been accustomed to from his conventional predecessors for the last quarter century? No. Does that mean there is no method or coherent intent to it? No. It will be interesting to watch.