Don’t Be Fooled: Trump’s Phone Call to Taiwan Was No Accident

Talking to Taiwan was a mistake. But it was intentional.

Politics Features Donald Trump
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If we’ve learned anything over the last 18 months it’s that Donald Trump can prevail when no one believes he will. What we think are clearly dumb or thoughtless choices have been winners. So at what point do we get honest with ourselves and give the guy some credit?

I don’t want to. But even if we can’t give credit to the Donald — he seems determined to prove he doesn’t deserve it — at some point we need to stop deluding ourselves and at least take the experienced people around him seriously. They’re going to be running the country. Plus, they’ve proved critics wrong every time. They might be making yuge mistakes, but they’re intentional.

We don’t know much about how Trump’s mind works. It seems arbitrary and mostly driven by his pathological desire to be admired. But it’s time to take what we do know about Trump as a campaigner and apply that to policy. We know two things:

1. Trump doesn’t seem to believe in anything, or at least doesn’t care about his beliefs.

2. He’ll say anything he needs to at any time, just so it looks like he’s right.

This means we can probably assume Trump is what foreign policy experts call a “realist.” That is, he’s practical, not ideological. But where realists in the past — Obama, for instance — try to be agnostic of their ideals so they don’t get in the way of making the right strategic choice, Trump is completely devoid of ideology. Put this way, we can better understand what we have been calling the post-truth era: Damn not just truth, but the value of truth.

That is, it’s not “win at any cost” — to Trump, there’s no cost, period. Debt obviously doesn’t factor into anything. In fact, the opposite is true: He thinks debt is valuable. Trump’s not a realist: He’s a nihilist. We haven’t seen this before, at least not in a president, as far as I know.

The ill-advised call Trump took Friday with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan is a great case study here.

The call was alarming, to put it lightly. And Trump, in an incoherent knee-jerk Twitter defense, made it quite clear he’s dangerously ignorant of major geopolitical flashpoints. Just about everyone with any foreign policy experience — even an international relations class in undergrad — immediately ripped him for it. Many people in the government were terrified, and rightly so. If nothing else, an American president needs to know two basic things about foreign policy: You don’t fuck with India and Pakistan, and you don’t fuck with China and Taiwan.

So the question now is: Did Trump really not know this, or did he just not care?

It’s tough to sum up the triangular relationship between the U.S., China, and Taiwan. It’s super complicated, but pretty fascinating. There are a lot of nuances, and if you want a good take, this is it. This quick metaphor pretty well gets the gist of the feelings:

China sees Taiwan the way a mama grizzly bear sees her cub. But Mama Grizzly is estranged from Daddy Grizzly. She used to be drunk on power and would get really violent, so Dad took Taiwan in the divorce and the court wouldn’t recognize Mom’s custody over young Taiwan. Over the years Mama Grizzly sobered up a bit and now she’s absolutely furious she can’t have Taiwan back.

If you have any sense, you don’t tell a Mama Grizzly that her kid isn’t her kid. If you want to hang out with mama, you say, “Sure, you’re Taiwan’s mom. One big happy family.” But at the same time, Taiwan isn’t a minor anymore and doesn’t want to go back to its violent mother, so you’ve got to respect that, too. In the interest of keeping the peace and staying friends with both of them, you tell the mom one thing but you act another way to Taiwan, and everyone just sort of deals with it because they don’t want a fight, either.

The call was a big deal because, weird as it might seem, our entire relationship with China is based on that “one China” premise. It’s only a verbal commitment, and everyone knows it’s a white lie. That doesn’t seem like a big deal to us, but it is a yuge deal to China. Without that promise, there’s no U.S.-China relationship — period.

This is why no U.S. president has communicated directly with Taiwan since 1979. We have an unofficial relationship and we occasionally sell them weapons to check China’s influence a bit and deter them from invading Taiwan. China doesn’t like it, but it’ll hang back and wait until Taiwan (or the U.S.) gives it a reason to act.

Enter Trump.

Here’s how Trump destroyed those decades of delicate balance: First, he simply talked to Taiwan’s president; he also called Taiwan a country; he recognized Tsai as the “President of Taiwan” (she’s strongly pro-independence); he congratulated her on her victory earlier this year; and most alarming of all, the two discussed the “close economic, political, and security ties” between the two countries.

No way Trump knew there was an election in Taiwan this year, let alone that someone named Tsai won it. Kellyanne Conway has since confirmed that not only was the call orchestrated by both sides days in advance, but that “her team and the president-elect were aware of longstanding U.S. policy on Taiwan.”

Did Trump go off script, though? Surely Trump’s team wouldn’t have wanted to piss China off by doing the one thing the U.S. has promised they wouldn’t ever do…


After the call, the Taipei Times dropped some major news, which has, unbelievably, gone unreported in the U.S. press: Stephen Yates — he was deputy security advisor to Dick Cheney — is visiting Taiwan this week, from Tuesday to next Sunday. While there, he’s going to meet with senior leadership: Taiwan’s president; the Minister of Foreign Affairs; and the National Security Council Secretary-General. Yates is buds with Reince Priebus and penned the Republican Party platform this year, and sources said he’s going to have an as-yet unnamed position in the Trump administration.

Now that is alarming. It’s also clearly not a coincidence. This is the game:

The Trump team wants to assert U.S. dominance over China. He plans to pull out of the TPP almost immediately and seems willing to risk a trade war. They’re betting that this contact — a surprise alpha-male move — will put China on its heels before Trump takes office. Trump’s hawkish advisers probably picked this specific battle because they believe China is too weak to follow through on its threats not to mess with Taiwan. China’s just been bluffing and won’t risk tanking its economy — which has recently been pretty weak — in an armed conflict over the island. Let alone over a phone call.

The Trumpers think they can use Taiwan more assertively to check China’s rise and protect American military dominance in the Pacific, especially considering we haven’t been able to pivot to China thanks to the #swamp in the Middle East. They maybe learned from Obama there. So if we can’t get out of the Middle East anytime soon, in the meantime let’s try to strengthen U.S. ties to Taiwan. We can use Taiwan to project military power, and that could hold us for a while. And if we’re not being not clear enough about this, China: We’re sending Yates there now.

Let’s look at it through the lens of Trump the candidate. Diplomacy? Well, that’s just another word for worldwide “political correctness.” Trump doesn’t give a shit about that. What’s the big deal about a phone call? No, Trump will try to drive foreign policy with his personality, and his personality is a steamroller. He’s going to shake up politics all over the globe.

Or try to.

The world is much stronger than one person, even if that person controls the strongest country in the world. We can’t just push China around without a care in the world. As Trump’s bizarre theme song says, you can’t always get what you want.

The ball’s in China’s court now. Do they give an inch, or do they push back? So far, China has only lodged a formal protest with the White House, which doesn’t seem like much of a response. Maybe they figure — like many of us did — that Trump is a buffoon who needs an education. If that’s the bet, they — like us — might be surprised to learn a lesson. Trump might push them much harder than they’re willing to push back.

But let’s give China credit, too. Trump was trying to provoke them, but as any fan of Cesar Milan knows, the way to handle an alpha-male is to ignore them. Then correct them. Firmly.

After all, we need China: We need China to support sanctions against Iran; we need China to follow agreements about climate change and industry; we need China to keep a muzzle on North Korea; we need China to enforce laws that don’t disadvantage U.S. companies with offices and factories there; we need China to make products cheap enough that our severely underpaid and overtaxed middle and lower classes can afford to maintain a modest lifestyle by buying stuff like cell phones, or clothes from places like Wal-Mart; perhaps most importantly, we need China to play nice with the trillions of dollars of U.S. debt it holds in Treasury bonds.

But you know what else is worrying? This article. Back in September, Trump — as a presidential candidate — sent a representative to speak with the mayor of a city in Taiwan to discuss building hotels and resorts on the island. From that piece:

“A woman working for the Trump Organization came to Taoyuan in September, declaring the company’s investment interest in Taiwan’s Taoyuan Aerotropolis, a large urban planning development project surrounding the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport…

Reports also said the meeting suggested that Eric Trump, the son of the President-elect, will come to Taiwan personally to see about the potential business opportunity by the end of the year.”

Trump’s financial record makes it clear that, to him, there’s no cost to doing business. Could this nihilism work as foreign policy? If the rest of the world proves every bit as incapable of stepping up to Trump as the entire American political system was in the past year, then actually, maybe.

Here’s the actual verbiage of the U.S.’s official position on Taiwan’s independence from China: “Sovereignty over the area is an unsettled question subject to future international resolution.” It’s not resolved. There’s plenty of room in there for trouble. And just like Trump’s campaign — damn not just the truth but the value of truth, the value of the pursuit of truth — this is probably going to be another fascinating disaster.