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Trump’s Major Taiwan Blunder

At best, Trump has pointlessly antagonized Beijing.

Trump made a major error when he made a phone call to answered a pre-arranged phone call from the president of Taiwan today. The Financial Times reports:

Donald Trump risks opening up a major diplomatic dispute with China before he has even been inaugurated after speaking on the phone on Friday with Tsai Ying-wen, the president of Taiwan.

The telephone call, confirmed by three people, is believed to be the first between a US president or president-elect and a leader of Taiwan since diplomatic relations between the two were cut in 1979.

Although it is not clear if the Trump transition team intended the conversation to signal a broader change in US policy towards Taiwan, the call is likely to infuriate Beijing which regards the island as a renegade province.

Standing U.S. policy for over four decades has been that there is only one China, and for the last thirty-seven years our government has recognized the government of that one China to be in Beijing. That has been part of the price of establishing full diplomatic relations with Beijing, and it has been an important part of how the U.S. has helped maintain stability and avoided conflict between China and Taiwan. Ever since that shift, the U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and Trump’s call represents the first time since then that any president or president-elect has directly contacted Taiwan’s political leadership.

Changing that policy would be a delicate and risky undertaking at the best of times, but doing it abruptly without consulting anyone in the government and doing it even before being sworn into office is the height of irresponsible and clueless behavior. Whatever one thinks of the merits of existing policy on China and Taiwan, it is not the prerogative of the incoming president to start mucking around with U.S. relations with other governments before he is inaugurated. Even if this episode doesn’t lead to any serious problems, it spells trouble for how he will conduct foreign policy once he is in office.

Unfortunately, this episode probably will have some real and meaningful consequences. The article concludes with an assessment of the likely fallout:

“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.”

Trump had an opportunity at the start of his presidency to begin with a more or less clean slate with China, and he has now very likely frittered that away for nothing. At best, Trump has pointlessly antagonized Beijing in a way that will have lingering effects on his dealings with them for months and possibly years to come. At the very worst, his careless freelancing could produce a real crisis between China and Taiwan that could end up dragging in the U.S.