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Reading Between the Tweets: Trump, Taiwan, and China

by Elizabeth C. Economy
December 13, 2016

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at the USA Thank You Tour event at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., December 8, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump speaks at the USA Thank You Tour event at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on December 8, 2016. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)


As the Trump-Taiwan-China saga continues to unfold, I thought it might be useful to look at the sequence of events and report on how Chinese scholars are looking at President-Elect Trump’s first foreign policy musings and how we in the United States might understand his statements and actions to date. Here is a brief rundown:

  • President-Elect Trump accepts a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, breaking decades of diplomatic precedent in the process.
  • He defends the phone call on Twitter on the grounds that she called him; it would have been rude not to accept the call; Taiwan buys billions of dollars of arms from the United States; and China can’t tell him what to do.
  • Via Twitter, he calls China out on currency manipulation, unfair trade practices, and its military buildup in the South China Sea.
  • He names China’s “old friend” Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as his pick for ambassador to China.
  • He indicates that he is ready to rethink the “One China” Policy because China does everything he noted earlier in his tweets, plus Beijing doesn’t help out the United States enough with North Korea. He could be persuaded to rethink his rethink, however, if China puts something good on the table, perhaps related to trade.

While the official view from Beijing has evolved from tempered to truculent, Chinese scholars continue to try to understand the president-elect, holding out hope that the relationship will eventually find a new equilibrium. Wang Wenfeng, a scholar at the Ministry of Public Security’s influential think tank, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, for example, reflects hope mixed with anxiety: “We really need to know more about Donald Trump the person. Why he does something and what is his logic behind his words and deeds are important for the outside world to understand Trump and his policy. For Trump, he definitely needs to know more about the world. He still has a lot to learn about policy issues… It will take time for Trump to get used to his new job, and we only hope that before that, not much damage will be done.”

Senior scholar Tao Wenzhao suggests that the United States cannot afford for the relationship to deteriorate and Trump’s business sense ultimately may serve the bilateral relationship well. He comments,  “Trump can…not afford the risk of worsened relations with China. In particular, the U.S. is now experiencing fiscal difficulty and internal division. There is no basis for a policy that would worsen U.S.-China relations…The two countries may well cooperate through some commercial arrangement…Trump is a businessman, who values solid interests. He will also focus his attention on domestic affairs rather than having a strong impulse to expand American-style democracy overseas. Human rights pressure on China is likely to decrease.”

My own view reflects a similar mix of hope, anxiety, and serious concern. On the positive side, Donald Trump brings a singular advantage to the table as a foreign policy novice. He is unencumbered by all the diplomatic decisions—good and bad—that have come before him. He is willing to question the underpinnings of our relationship with Taiwan and China. No one should fault him for that.

It would be helpful, however, if he is going to dive headfirst into one of the most longstanding and thorny issues the United States confronts—how to navigate its relations with China and Taiwan—that he articulate his priorities. He seems to be suggesting that the name of the game is trade and investment. He believes that the United States has received the short end of a stick in its economic relations with China and appears willing to try whatever it might take to change the situation. Security concerns are a distant second, and debate about human rights is missing in action. Donald Trump may elevate Taiwan in U.S. foreign policy and help it to achieve greater recognition internationally or he may sell it down the proverbial strait. We just don’t know. He may not either.

Moreover, at some point in time—and that time is coming soon—President-Elect Trump will be in a position to act, not just speak, and his actions will have consequences. China has the capacity to hit and hit back hard—both on the trade and investment front and in the security arena. President-Elect Trump’s staff has promised that he would spend considerable time getting up to speed on foreign policy in his first months as president – he might want start by reading Steven Goldstein’s excellent piece on the “One China” policy in the Washington Post that lays it all out. Before Trump begins to dismantle what Americans have spent a century negotiating and fighting to achieve, I hope that even if he does not know what has come before, he has a good idea of what he wants to come next and what it will take and cost to get it.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Rohit G Chandavarker

    Change is the only constant in life. Disruption is the new normal. If one were to consider these adages seriously, the scenario might look like a clean slate minus the preconceived, straitjacketed dogmas & beliefs.
    Trump is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle, but one only needs to reiterate his campaign tagline, ‘Make America Great Again’. The operative word is ‘again’.
    The policy framework that US relies on for decades can be rewritten though that would earn the opprobrium from established ‘experts’. Unpredictability can, sometimes, be a useful weapon.
    The US has, for long, treated Russia, erstwhile USSR, as enemy No. 1. However, let me play Devil’s advocate.
    What if US’ Trump prefers a benign Russia & considers China a bigger & more potent threat? Better dead than red still holds, though one might consider a flame spewing uppity dragon more lethal than a manageable bear.

  • Posted by Savannah

    Amazing insight! But Rohit got a good point in his analyses! Who is the threat and why America has to consider anyone a threat? Wanna fight?

  • Posted by Mr. NoWise

    Regarding trade and investment, American has advantages, see



  • Posted by Kendra

    Democrats and Republicans have spent years blaming China as THE reason for the decline in jobs and wages. Your suggestion that China can hit back and hit back hard has no meaning to 99% of Americans. They view statements like that as proof that America is weak and an excuse of a timid, aristocrac governing class. Enter Donald Trump, he is baiting China because it plays well to his supporters. Trump may also be assuming that no matter what he does, things are coming to a boiling point with China because of their continued status as a non-market economy. It is entirely possible, Trump, in his mind, may be capitalizing on an inevitable clash with China.
    If you want to help the situation, help educate the public on what the US will be facing in a fight with China and how issues can be resolved. This means no lengthy papers and no assumptions that everyone knows what you are talking about because they don’t.

  • Posted by Ron

    Trump is several hundred million in debt to Chinese banks. He’ll gladly embrace “one China” if they wipe out that debt. It’s his M.O. Of course, that depends on whether Putin okays what he does.

  • Posted by china daily news today

    Another way to obtain overseas reporting was Guide Info (Cankao Ziliao), a far more
    minimal Oriental reprint of foreign reportage accessible
    only to middle- and upper level cadres.

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