Update: Amid debate over whether President-elect Donald Trump’s call with Taiwan’s president on Friday was meant to send a larger message to China, the soon-to-be leader of the free world took to Twitter to scoff at the idea that Beijing can have a say in U.S. foreign policy.
“Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!” Trump tweeted.
The tweets sent out by the president-elect suggest the call with Taiwan was more than diplomatic courtesy and was meant to send a clear message to Beijing about how he would operate once in the White House.
Original post at 4:55 p.m.: An interesting dynamic played out Sunday as President-elect Donald Trump’s team tried to dismiss concerns about broader implications of Friday’s call with the Taiwanese leader, while experts said that it would be too simplistic to shrug off the conversation as nothing but a rookie mistake from a rookie president. On the Sunday talk shows the rule of the game was laughing off the press for getting overly excited about the first known contact between a Taiwanese leader and a U.S. president or president-elect since 1979.
One of those responsible for dismissing speculation about the conversation was Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who said the whole thing was nothing but a “courtesy call.” Pence said the reaction to the call amounted to a “tempest in a teapot” that shouldn’t be seen as a sign of a broader shift in strategy. “I think I would just say to our counterparts in China that this was a moment of courtesy. The president-elect talked to President Xi two weeks ago in the same manner. It was not a discussion about policy,” Pence said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Kellyanne Conway also joined the downplaying game even as she seemed to recognize that everyone would read into it whatever they wanted. “It was just a phone call at this point,” Conway said on Fox News Sunday. “It signals the fact that he accepted a congratulatory call. I know that China has a perspective on it, I know the White House and State Department probably have a perspective on it, and certainly Taiwan has a perspective on it, but the president-elect’s perspective is that he accepted a congratulatory call.”
Experts, however, seem to be increasingly saying this could be a sign of broader shifts in foreign policy that can be expected from a president-elect who was fond of anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail. Trump’s team is filled with people who are friendly toward Taiwan and have been highly critical of the way President Obama’s administration has allowed Beijing to call the shots when it comes to Taipei’s relationship with Washington.
The Washington Post notes that China experts have been particularly pointing to a Foreign Policy article that called Taiwan a “beacon of democracy in Asia” as a hint of what may be to come. In the piece, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro write:
The Obama administration’s treatment of Taiwan has been equally egregious. This beacon of democracy in Asia is perhaps the most militarily vulnerable U.S. partner anywhere in the world. As far back as 2010, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the balance of power in the skies above the Taiwan Strait was shifting toward Beijing. Yet Taiwan has been repeatedly denied the type of comprehensive arms deal it needs to deter China’s covetous gaze, despite the fact that such assistance is guaranteed by the legally binding Taiwan Relations Act.
Another thing that those in the know are making clear is that even if Trump made it seem on Twitter like he just happened to be around when President Tsai Ing-wen placed a call, the whole thing was much more calculated. Julia Famularo, an expert on the region, wrote on Twitter that the call was “planned weeks in advance by staffers … who want to address, amend counterproductive ‘protocols’.” This goes in line with what a Taiwanese government spokesman said after the call was made public.
“Maybe it was calculated—and perhaps even useful,” writes the Wall Street Journal in an editorial that says the lesson from the event is that the media shouldn’t “overreact to every break with State Department protocol as if it’s the start of World War III.”
For now, experts largely agree that it’s too soon to tell whether the call signaled a wider policy shift or was nothing more than a “complicated accident,” as one expert tells the Associated Press. Regardless though, the one thing that seems clear is “we are entering into an era of shoot-from-the-lip foreign policy,” David Rothkopf, chief executive and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, tells the Financial Times. “All of these calls have demonstrated a combination of ignorance and some sort of nascent policy position.” (Slate’s Joshua Keating wrote that it’s time to take Trump’s phone away or else he may very well spark a major international crisis before even being sworn into office.)