Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign event in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, November 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign event in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, November 1, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Another day, another Trump outrage Tweetstorm.

After the Sunday talk shows, the sensation du jour was Trump’s statement that he didn’t “necessarily” feel bound by the One China policy.

Beyond the simple fact that Trump is not yet President, there are other reasons not to give too much weight to Trump’s current statements.

First of all, Trump is engaged in a fierce public relations war with the Democrats. The Democrats would like to delegitimize Trump, cripple his presidency, define it as a failure in the public eye, win back Congress in the midterms and either impeach Trump or thump him when he comes up for re-election in 2020 (I’m assuming Trump makes it into office, which is not a sure one-way bet).

Currently the big deal is the alleged Russian hacking of the DNC, and leaks (possibly courtesy of and spun by Democratic members of Congress) that the CIA has stated its opinion that the overwhelming circumstantial evidence indicates that the hacks were government-directed with the specific intention of helping Trump.

All well and awful, but unless Trump can be shown to be materially colluding with the Russians, there’s not much fire to go with that smoke. The self-soothing narrative adopted by the Democrats is that Comey’s statement on the Clinton email server is what sunk Clinton, not the WikiLeaks.

And, of course, there’s Craig Murray’s categorical statement that he knows how the DNC leaks got done, and it was an insider — not Russian — job. And that he actually met the source. This rather astounding statement has also rather astoundingly elicited minimal attention from the press.

Whatever. So Trump is trying to move the news cycle into his orbit, so he makes a splashy statement about the Chinese. I call this “Laser Pointer Politics”: trying to get the media and public to chase their own tails instead of pursuing him.

Secondly, Trump is an incoming president with high unfavorables, loser of the popular vote, politically vulnerable, with weak support from elites in Washington and the promise of open resistance from the pro-Obama sector of official Washington and the liberal media. He needs to recruit officials and allies who will battle enthusiastically on his behalf in the public sphere and aggressively push his authority and policies onto a resistant bureaucracy. Otherwise, he’s just going to be a piñata for his opponents for the duration of his presidency.

This state of affairs accounts, I think, for the Cabinet Recruitment Follies™, highlighted by the endless parade of candidates for Secretary of State: Petraeus! Giuliani! Corker! Bolton! Huntsman! Stavridis! Rohrbacher! Romney! Rex Tillerson! You missed Alan Mulally?! (Who’s he? CEO of Ford.)

Trump is sending the message, look at all these respectable people who want to be my Secretary of State. Look who loves me: Generals! Admirals! CEOs! Mayors! Ambassadors! Congress-critters! My Political Opponents! Mustachio’d Nut Jobs!

Naming the names widens Trump’s perceived political footprint, his legitimacy, and his Beltway clout.

Trump’s rather premature statements on China perform a similar political function, I believe. They stake out a political claim to “tough on China” as a signature Trump issue and provide distraction from “Russia reset” as his real signature issue. Everybody in the Beltway agrees China is a threat, and that Obama didn’t do enough. To the embarrassment of liberal/globalist Washington, the pivot is floundering with Duterte’s defection.

China confrontation needed to be kicked up a notch and the only question is how to do it.

So here’s the opportunity for Trump to claim some valuable political turf on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon, and also try to soothe the desperately hurt feelings of Atlanticists about his pretty unequivocal intention to tilt in favor of Russia.

As to the particular form of Trump’s China-bashing, I think he’s decided by default to cleave to the Cheney era neo-cons, who were pretty much the only Beltway foreign policy insiders who did not publicly throw in their lot with Hillary Clinton.

One of the more amusing stories of the 2016 campaign is the aggressive Clinton effort to co-opt and recruit FP wonks to capture that unstoppable establishment expert juggernaut momentum for her campaign. Pretty much everybody jumped on the bandwagon, only to go over the cliff on November 8. Trump, unsurprisingly, has reportedly blacklisted signatories of the most egregious “Trump is unfit to run American FP” public letter.

The neocons are what’s left. Trump skepticism of the neocon’s signature adventure — the catastrophe of the Iraq invasion — is pretty well documented but, to paraphrase Donald Rumseld, you go with the bureaucratic faction you got, not the one you wish you had. Neocons also have the virtue of being absolutely ferocious political infighters and Trump and his advisers are, I expect, regarding them as useful assets in pushing policies and kneecapping opponents.

Neocons hate the PRC and love Taiwan. So it isn’t too surprising that Trump kicked off his foreign policy campaign (and built up political capital with the neocons) by taking Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call and questioning the One China policy designed to institutionalize Taiwan’s international ostracization.

The expert Twittersphere — at least the part painfully extracting itself from the wreckage of the Clinton defeat — has been quick to disparage Trump as, basically, the village idiot on China, especially for his risible claim that the PRC is keeping its currency artificially low.

As is pretty clear, the PRC is struggling to sustain an unreasonably high valuation for the RMB. As is perhaps less clear, I think that Trump — whose real estate empire is actually a murky web of loans, currencies, and interest rates — probably knows that. But maybe he’s ready to slam the PRC when the Fed raises rates — and the People’s Bank of China gives up on propping up the RMB with tens of billions of dollars of purchasing and lets its value fall.

As they say, we’ll see how clumsy and clueless Trump really is.

So how about Taiwan and the One China policy?  Hand-wringing liberal analysts have been forced into the rather unfamiliar territory of blaming Trump for being too hard on China. The sub-argument is that Trump is endangering the hard-won stability of Asia by fecklessly fiddling with a policy that has been the cornerstone of US-PRC policy since the Shanghai Communique of 1972.

Considering that, until Trump, the prevailing narrative was that China was flouting American power and the principled liberal order to aggressively aggrandize its authoritarian sway in the South China Sea and in East and South Asia, this is perhaps not the strongest of arguments.

The United States has, much to the resentment of independence-minded Taiwanese, has — until Trump — consistently stuck to the letter of the One China policy and not supported Taiwanese attempts to participate in international institutions and obtain formal diplomatic recognition. Beyond that, the US has selectively diddled with the spirit of the Shanghai Communique ever since Reagan exploited its built-in strategic ambiguity to pass the Taiwan Relations Act placing Taiwan — kind of, in a noncommittal commitment sort of way — under the US security umbrella and enabling sales of military equipment.

Today, from the point of view of Taiwan independence activists and neo-cons, Taiwan has evolved from a half-assed KMT satrapy to a genuine democracy and its national consciousness has developed — and PRC prestige has eroded — to the point that Taiwan is a de facto independent state lacking only de jure recognition. The prospects for Taiwan’s integration into the Asian community are only increasing with the return of Japan to the military/security fray. Japanese conservatives and Taiwan independence-minded indigenes share a nostalgia for the good old days when Taiwan was a rather humanely administered and prosperous Japanese colony.

It appears that the PRC has reconciled itself, albeit grudgingly, to this state of affairs. The red line, I believe, for Taiwanese mischief — which, in additional to powerful factors of national pride and CCP ideology — underlies existential mainland hostility to de jure Taiwanese independence, is the potential for an independent Taiwan to become an effective member of the pro-US/pro-Japan China containment military alliance.

Singapore learned this the hard way when it shipped nine armored personnel carriers to Taiwan for training exercises, idiotically shipped them back via Xiamen (for cost savings!), and saw them impounded in Hong Kong.

Interestingly, there is an immediate precedent for Taiwan expanding security activity beyond strict defense of territorial land and waters to a more forward policy — and that’s the Japanese constitutional re-interpretation that the US encouraged and the PRC detests.

The threat of Taiwan returning to the role of US-backed PRC adversary that it played under the KMT, with the added possibility that Japan might join the fun, gives teeth to the PRC threat to attack Taiwan if independence — and a full-fledged independent defense and security policy — is declared.

Taiwan declares independence and gets leveled despite US lip service and active assistance is a pretty plausible scenario as the PRC remorselessly muscles up in the Taiwan Strait and its environs.

That reality, as communicated by the PRC to the Taiwan government — rather than US enticements/encouragement — should probably be understood as the governing factor in Taiwan’s international posture.

The PRC looks to Tsai Ing-wen, not Donald Trump as the key to Taiwan’s future or lack of it.

Taiwan got a look at the baseball bat, courtesy of Global Times:

The One China policy has maintained peace and prosperity in Taiwan, and, if abandoned, cross-Straits ties would see a real storm. China would introduce a series of new Taiwan polices, and may not prioritize peaceful reunification over a military takeover if Trump insisted on his provocations. The US has no control over the Straits, and Trump is naïve to think he can use the One China policy as a bargaining chip to win economic benefits from China.

Eventually, those who advocate Taiwan independence will tremble. Taiwanese authorities may regret to being a pawn of Trump and his radical policies. And Tsai will refuse to answer Trump’s call some day. Nothing is impossible if the Trump administration goes too far.

Global Times was relatively gentle with Trump, characterizing him as a novice who didn’t understand the nuances of the One China policy. The punishment for Trump:

If Trump gave up the One China policy, publicly supported Taiwan independence and wantonly sold weapons to Taiwan, China would have no grounds to partner with Washington on international affairs and contain forces hostile to the US. In response to Trump’s provocations, Beijing could offer support, even military assistance to US foes.

For a conceptual curve ball, consider Taiwan and North Korea as twinned particles, both maintained in diplomatic and legal limbo and restrained militarily by their patrons — and chafing to escape. I think the Chinese message is, Forget about help restraining North Korea and those ICBMs potentially threatening the US homeland if you enable Taiwan to achieve its neocon destiny as an unsinkable missile and aircraft carrier off the coast of China. On the other hand, if the US and China get along, maybe something could be done about North Korea …

Bottom line, the Obama administration has been grindingly adversarial with the PRC across the full spectrum of international affairs with the exception of climate change. The guiding idea seems to have been that China was a nasty authoritarian virus, and the key job was to strengthen the global immune system aka the principled liberal international order to the point it could contain and eliminate the infection.

The PRC may be guardedly optimistic that Trump, while hyping the China threat, will pursue a more transactional diplomacy that accommodates prevailing PRC interests in some parts of the world. The appointment of ag-biz guy Terry Branstad is ambassador to China a signal in this direction.

And putting One China in play may be Trump’s aggressive opening gambit in a different but not necessarily apocalyptic paradigm of US-China relations.

Peter Lee

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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