Commentary: Trump, Taiwan and ChinaPosted: December 2, 2016
Today’s South China Morning Post:
The US has adopted the so-called “One China” policy since 1972 after the Richard Nixon-Mao meetings and in 1978 President Jimmy Carter formally recognised Beijing as the sole government of China, with the US embassy closing in Taipei the year after.
“The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” said Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House national security council.
“Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.”
Tsai has refused to accept the concept of “One China,” prompting Beijing to cut off all official communication with the island’s new government.
I can’t claim to be even close to an “expert” on most things, but on this I am probably closer to an expert than 99.999% of the people who will read about this in the news in the US, so I’ll spew some quick thoughts. Taken by itself Trump’s call to Taiwan’s president is pretty much like spraying a stream of lighter fluid on an open flame. I think from Trump’s side, there are two possible interpretations of this: 1) he didn’t know what this would mean to Beijing or 2) he had an idea that it would be hugely inflammatory and did it more or less intentionally. If it’s the former, then it is a perfect example of the kind of thing people opposed to him were saying before the election: “Do you want a crazy guy who tweets crazy stuff in the middle of the night to have access to nuclear weapons?” If it’s the latter, then it may well be an example of what we’ve seen from Trump on more than one occasion: staking out an aggressive opening position from which he can then make concessions to end up “winning” (so much you’ll get tired of all the winning).”
I suspect (but only suspect) that it’s the latter. The problem is that, in the US political sphere, Trump has had success after success applying this strategy to people who are playing a different kind of game from him. By breaking the rules of a very constrained style of political rhetoric, he has consistently outflanked his political opponents: He starts out seeming unreasonable because he says things he’s “not supposed to say,” then retreats to a reasonable middle ground and ends up looking good, especially to people who rebel against the constraints on political speech that have become commonplace in our culture.
In the context of relations with Beijing, he’s dealing with a completely different set of rhetorical and political rules. The tenor of political rhetoric in China would make the most U.S.-nationalist opinion journalism found on Breitbart (much less Fox) look like a gentle essay at Vox or Salon on the contributions of transgender people of color to visual culture. Jingoistic nationalism in China has already been ramped up to “11.” Nationalism is the primary — at times only — foundation of the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Over the last ten years every kind of “China watcher” — from people like me to academics to professional diplomats — have noted how the Party has encouraged an increasingly virulent and aggressive tone of nationalist language in both official media and in the carefully-curated and censored world of Chinese public online society. At times this has seemed to get a bit out of control from the Party’s point of view, and they’ve had to throttle it back. But one interesting thing is that the quasi-official army of online “activists” the Party uses in their media management actually tend to have better tools for accessing news outside the Great Firewall than the average Chinese internet user. They tend to have better and more functional VPNs and often will see news stories from otherwise censored foreign media outlets that “normal” internet users won’t see. So it’s likely that, even if the Party wanted to let this particular story go, it will leak into the mainstream of Chinese political discussion. It will be interesting to see if this is how it gets out into the Chinese internet, or if the Party doesn’t even try to control this story.
In any case, Beijing has been playing Trump’s game all along. One of the ways they have learned to intimidate their neighbors in East and Southeast Asia is to have a minor diplomatic incident “go wild” in the environment of nationalist discussion on the Chinese internet, and then basically face off some smaller regional country by taking the position that, unless concessions are made, “things could get out of control.” On a strictly legal basis, their territorial claims in the South China Sea are wildly overstated — again, as an opening position from which they can make “compromises” so that other countries can feel like they avoided a catastrophe by little by little ceding their rights. Of course, against “reasonable” opponents who mistake words and moral posturing for actions, but whose overall behavior signals that they will never risk a real fight, this has proved to be a very effective strategy. (Not naming names here.)
In purely game-theoretic terms, we don’t know how things will develop when both sides are playing the same strategy. Since China abandoned Deng’s policy of maintaining a low international profile and went all-in on basing their legitimacy on jingoistic nationalism, no one has been willing to call China’s bluff in any meaningful way. No one in positions of power in China’s foreign policy and defense establishment now has ever had to play a different kind of game. But if you think Western political and diplomatic elites live in an echo chamber, you should see the world that China’s powerful live in. They really, really, REALLY believe the West will ALWAYS blink first, and they would literally rather die than lose face. Their entire view of the world is based on a brittle pride and a deeply fundamental belief that China is and always has been a victim of Western aggression and perfidy. That is not a pose — it’s the foundation of their view of China in the world.